Real friends in a Virtual World

Real friends in a Virtual World

Posted: Fri, 05 Nov 2021 10:56

Real friends in a Virtual World

The new Sarah Smith animated Disney film shares a topic that I suspect many parents, grandparents and teachers would identify with. Set in the mythical town of 'Nonsuch', the movie focuses on its children's love of social media and the various gadgets that are used to connect to the World Wide Web. However, 'Ron's Gone Wrong' is as much a warning to adults as it is to the young. The fictional tech giant, 'Bubble' produces the latest 'must have' gadget, the 'B-Bot'. It is created, in theory, to help children make friends. In reality, of course, it is really a marketing ploy that forced children to live in a virtual world, subject to the online bullying that comes with it. We can, as adults, become quite smug in our criticism of the internet addiction of the young, while we urgently talk into our cell phones and constantly check our Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp feeds.

The hero of the story is Barney, whose family are struggling to survive—they have little patience for the craze that has taken hold of the Nonsuch children. They certainly do not have money to pay for it. In his teenage angst, Barney lashes out at his father and grandmother as he feels that he has been singled out, as the only child without the latest fad. He has few social skills and is the loner in his school—all the children seem to be connected, especially through their own new computer. This leads his family to buy a damaged B-Bot' for Barney's birthday that has, literally, fallen off the back of a lorry. His new gift is not fully programmed and, like Barney, is a little broken and damaged.

It is that very brokenness that makes Barney's 'B-Bot' so unique. Named 'Ron', this computer stands out from the crowd and is certainly very different, bringing much humour and confusion. As I watched it with my friend, Fr Anthony, I realised that this movie could be used very effectively with students in school—my creative juices looked at ways that the film could support a new retreat programme, exploring the gift of friendship, and our dependence on social media. While not wanting to give the plot away, it is fair to say that 'Ron' covers so many themes that young people can identify with; bullying, broken friendships, public humiliation and spending too much time on mobiles, tablets and computers.

For me, the film makes us aware of the need to re-assure our young people that they are unique and individual. Peer pressure to confirm is very strong, especially for teenagers and this film helps us to understand so many difficulties that our young people have to undergo. However, no matter what age we are, our society makes it difficult to be a 'Ron' and be the rebel who shakes life up and brings change. It is hard to go against the crowd and be counter-cultural, yet the call of Jesus will imply that:

Unless you take up your cross, you cannot be a follower of mine... Blessed are the poor in spirit... If I, your master and Lord, have washed your feet, so you must wash each other's feet... Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do.

I see this as a true family film that children and adults will appreciate and benefit from. It will certainly help you to appreciate some of the issues children have to face that certainly were not around when I was growing up. I remember talking with a dear family member whose final year in primary school was being ruined by online bullies. A popular, academically gifted, and sporty child was being mercilessly trolled by jealous so-called 'friends'. There was no physical violence involved, but the emotional hurt was all too obvious. It is important for adults to help our young people realise their potential and worth: children who are bullies can grow into entitled adults who feel that their views and ideas are the only ones that matter. Children can be cruel, but so can adults as the history of our world shows us. Behind the assumed secrecy of their computer keyboards, these bullies can make life so hard for others. As we are very well aware this pattern can, all so easily, become a sad habit of adults too.

'Ron's Gone Wrong' focuses on the idea of forming friendships in a social media-dominated world. While the film does not give any great advice about what it takes to make friends, it does speak of listening to others and doing your best to care about their needs. Although 'Ron', the B-Bot has a damaged and faulty programme, it eventually helps Barney reclaim a few friendships from his past. It is this broken creation that allows Barney to move on. Difference is important and needed, especially in the Church: we need to be a community that values that difference; indeed we need to encourage it. When was the last time you encouraged your child, your students or friends—when was the last time you praised them for their gifts and talents? Do you use social media to build up, or do you use it as a platform of hate and derision? As Christians, we are invited to take those differences, and the brokenness that we all share. Seeming failures can be transformed, as we discover new and exciting ways forward. Henri Nouwen offers this support in dark times

How can we live our brokenness? Jesus invites us to embrace our brokenness as he embraced the cross and live it as part of our mission. He asks us not to reject our brokenness as a curse from God that reminds us of our sinfulness but to accept it and put it under God's blessing for our purification and sanctification. Thus, our brokenness can become a gateway to new life.

Author: Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB

Image: FLY:D on Unsplash

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