A girl looks at a glass display, Moldova

for every child | digital care

Many parents and teachers are concerned about how much time children spend online. But it’s difficult to say whether hyperconnectivity is good or bad for children. Research increasingly shows that technology’s impact on well-being has more to do with the quality of the activity than with the quantity of time children spend in front of screens.


Whether children benefit from their digital experiences has much to do with their starting points. Children who are lonely, stressed, depressed or have problems at home, for example, may find that the internet compounds these difficulties, rather than providing escape. But children with strong social and familial relationships can use the internet to bolster them – leading to improved well-being.
What if a child’s only way to connect with family were online?
In Moldova, where poverty can drive physical distance, advances in digital technology have helped one teenager build a stronger bond with her mother, who lives and works abroad.
A teenage girl stands in front of a sunset, Moldova
On a chilly October evening in a village outside of Moldova’s capital of Chisinau, 17-year-old Gabriela ‘Gabi’ Vlad is slumped in a chair in the corner of her neighbour’s dining room. She furrows her brow at her phone. After a long day, she was looking forward to seeing her mother, but now it seems as though the chances are slim.
At the table, her father, brother and neighbours laugh together over a dinner of stewed pork, polenta and homemade wine. The gatherings have become a tradition for the two families, who have grown close in recent years. Gabi’s mother, Svetlana, often joins the dinners via Skype or Viber, but today the connection is slow. It’s a common problem between 8 and 9 p.m. in Moldova, when families like theirs are trying to connect with their relatives abroad.
Gabi hovers over her phone as her mother’s pixelated face flashes across the screen and is replaced by darkness. They quickly abandon the video chat and talk over the phone instead. Together, they join the table as Gabi’s father, brother and neighbours jump in to catch up with Svetlana and loop her into the conversation. It is almost as if she’s there.
For Svetlana and Gabi, this is just one of several conversations they will have throughout the day, usually over mobile chatting apps. Theirs is a long-distance parent-child relationship: Svetlana currently works in Germany, where she has been for about four years.
Although their relationship might seem odd in many parts of the world, in Moldova, it’s the new normal.

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The world's fastest shrinking country

 
An estimated 21 per cent of Moldovan children under 18 have at least one biological parent living abroad, while for 5 per cent of children, both biological parents have emigrated.
The overwhelming reason behind this emigration is economic opportunity. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and many families get the majority of their income from remittances. Official data indicate that today more than 330,000 Moldovans are either working abroad or looking for a job abroad, but the unofficial number of those who have left is believed to be up to one million.
The mass exodus of adults, combined with declining birth rates, has earned Moldova the title of the fastest shrinking country in the world.

Adjusting to a new family dynamic

 
Gabi was 6 years old when her mother left for the first time for a job in Italy. She was just starting elementary school that year, and her younger brother Mihai was 3.
“I remember the day before my mother left, when my father set the table for all of us – dinner was a traditional pastry with cheese inside. My father said, ‘Eat very well, because your mom is going to be leaving soon and this is the last time you’ll eat very good food!’” Gabi says with a laugh.
Gabi has vague memories of talking to her mother over the phone while she was abroad.
“In terms of technology, it was difficult back then. We didn’t use a computer. All we could do was buy a SIM card for 20 euro, and that was our limit for the month,” she says. She and the rest of the family could only speak with Svetlana on weekends, up to 10 minutes every Saturday for the entire family.
A year and a half later, Svetlana returned, without a single visit home in the interim.
“For me, it was a wonderful moment when she came back. I remember the immense joy,” says Gabi. "But for my brother it was confusing because he was so young. He asked her, ‘When are you going back to your home?’”
A teenage girl looks at her father in their home, Moldova

Gabriela (Gabi) Vlad, 17, and her father, Ion Vlad, message with her mother Svetlana before a day of school and work in the village of Porumbeni, Moldova.

At that time, Svetlana decided to stay in Moldova for the next five years, looking after her children during this critical period in their development. By the time she left for her next job in Germany, the Government of Moldova had completed an initiative to bring the internet to the entire country – a development that would prove auspicious for families like Gabi’s.
“[Back then] we had an old desktop computer which we connected to the internet and used for Skype. The first time, we talked for an hour because it was our first experience using it, and it was free,” says Gabi.
As technology advanced and Gabi got a cell phone in 2010, their communication became more regular. “I didn’t feel like my mother was abroad because there was no limit to the conversation itself. We mostly talked about friendships, about making connections with teachers and students.”
Her father and neighbours took on much of the parenting tasks at home, but Svetlana also helped Gabi with her homework, checked in to make sure she was dressed appropriately for the weather and made sure she was eating well.

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A teenage girl looks at her mobile phone, Moldova

Gabi uses her mobile phone outside the school she attends in Chisinau, Moldova.

A digital support system

 
Gabi says she’s most grateful for the instant communication with her mother when she has something positive to share, like a good grade or a successful dance recital. But she also relies on her mother during more challenging moments.
“One of the biggest hurdles my mother helped me overcome was when I was in eighth and ninth grade,” Gabi remembers. There was intense competition among students because being at the top of the class would determine who would go to university, or even get a scholarship.
Buckling under the pressure, Gabi would sometimes cry after school, and then call her mother, who would reassure her. “My mother told me to let my emotions out … but she told me I couldn’t let myself be stressed out by these things because they won’t matter,” she says. “She told me that what matters is your health and well-being – that you’re happy.”

“She told me that what matters is your health and well-being – that you’re happy.”

Svetlana has also been there for Gabi to help guide her through the passages of adolescence.
“All of the information about sexual education, the consequences, the risks, the methods of protection, the detailed explanations of what you need to be aware of – I got them from my mother, and my mother only,” says Gabi. “I didn’t go online. My mother made sure I knew what I needed to know.”
Perhaps because of her distance, Svetlana was particularly forthcoming with this information – even over the phone – which Gabi says has made her feel less embarrassed.
“When I was first getting my period and I had terrible cramps, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my father about it. I texted my mother and she helped me understand it was normal, she even told me of a specific type of tea to make to ease the pain,” she says.

Dreams for the future

 
Svetlana’s digital presence and support have had a profound impact on Gabi, who has excelled in her classes. She is currently student body president and at the top of her class, and was recently offered a prestigious afterschool job at the office of the director of the school.
Gabi believes her family’s set-up has been so successful because of their determination and positive attitude, which she attributes to her parents. They also explained to the children from the very beginning that their mother was going abroad to provide a better life for the family.
But 20 years ago, the physical distance between them could very well have been insurmountable.
Without the advances in digital technology that allow for constant contact, Gabi says her relationship with her mother would be immensely different. “It would be as if I had to play a role,” she says. “I would have to acknowledge someone as my mother for whom I don’t feel warm or close.”
As for her future, Gabi dreams of studying social sciences and maybe managing a hotel abroad one day. “I definitely don’t want to be just a receptionist,” she says, and after some prodding, admits she wants to be the boss. “I like business, because I like to engage people working as a team to reach certain results ... it’s like human machinery.”
She has signed up for German language classes for next year and is aiming for high marks in school to increase her chance for a scholarship. “I hope to move to Germany where I will study and my mother will live,” she says. “I’ll make up for missed time, and I hope that we can draw the rest of the family to join us.”

UNICEF in Moldova

Moldova’s gross domestic product (GDP) is one of the lowest in Europe, with a per capita GDP of just US$5,657 in 2017. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decline of the industrial sector, and business environment, have left Moldova’s economy heavily dependent on agriculture and money sent home from abroad.
 

In Moldova, this poses a unique challenge to parents, who are often forced to choose between leaving their children or living in poverty. UNICEF is working with the Government to help address child poverty and help place children left behind in the care of families instead of institutions.

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