Here’s an unfortunate reality: dealing with negative comments online is nothing new in this day and age. And chances are, whether you’re a public figure or just a casual internet (or social media) user, you’ve experienced some sort of negativity in the online space. Sure, there are conversations on how to cultivate a healthier digital environment already — we've discussed this in one of our Clozette Chats series — but the truth is, we can never force everyone to swing the way we want them to. So then, how do we address this gap without compromising our mental or emotional health?
Ahead, long-time content creators Nina Singanon, Kaycee Enerva, and Emily Quak shared their experiences of receiving negative comments, along with Singaporean psychotherapist Dr. Nicole Chew-Helbig, who weighed in on the best ways to cope with online negativity despite such uncontrollable circumstances.
The unnerving uncertainty
Through the years, the internet has transformed into a “lethal shaming weapon used by individuals to cause harm,” said Chew-Helbig. Given that “we only see the content of what is written,” without witnessing the body language or the expression of the person we’re conversing with, this makes it difficult to derive visual cues. Without these visual cues, we don't know enough as to what they’re actually thinking or feeling, making negative comments harder to process as the intent or malice behind it is more challenging to read.
Nina, who has been creating content since 2010, shared that she vividly remembered the first negative comment she received. A commenter criticised her looks, saying that she was “not being pretty enough” as a beauty blogger. Others also anonymously commented on her weight, without any regard to what her content was about in the first place.
“I take those with grace as ‘fat’ is not a bad word,” Nina expressed when asked how she felt about these remarks. She also shared that as a content creator, she has learned to accept that the internet has “definitely given people more ‘balls’ to post things online, that they otherwise wouldn’t have the guts to say to your face”.
Kaycee and Emily — who have been creating content for 11 and eight years respectively — shared similar sentiments, saying that most of these negative online comments are ad hominem, a.k.a. attacks based on prejudice about their physical appearances rather than the content that they produced.
Emily found herself "shaking for hours" after a commenter criticised her for “trying to be white” in one of her earlier videos. She had difficulty wrapping her head around the comment as she couldn’t understand where it came from, especially when the video featured her creating a smokey eye makeup look in her natural black hair. She also noted that she was not wearing coloured contacts, leaving her clueless as to why and where the commenter got their negative impression.
Unsurprisingly, all three creators expressed that offline, people rarely — if not at all — dare to direct negative remarks to their face, signifying a disparity in how anonymity changes the landscape of how hate speech is spread — and even normalised — in today's digitally-mediated society.
Ad hominem, or the way people attack a person directly rather than their standpoint, has become the internet's main language
Separating constructive criticism and toxicity
These content creators pointed out, however, that they do recognise the difference between constructive criticism and toxicity. Kaycee said that if it’s “definitely more than welcome” when the feedback is about the background noise in her latest vlog or how close the camera is when she’s filming a beauty video. Emily agreed, saying that choosing to put up your content online is “the same way an artist would put their creative work at a gallery”, so openness to constructive criticism is a given as long as it is objective.
“Feedback makes us better creators and better people,” said Nina. “But not all comments are said to help you improve — some are just mean and hurtful,” she added, drawing the line between these two types of ‘negative’ comments.
On finding the right ‘safe space’
“For most of us now, being offline is a cause for anxiety. Paradoxically, being exposed to the world via the internet is also a cause for anxiety,” Chew-Helbig explained. She related the idea of exposure to feelings of being “vulnerable to intrusion from outside”, in which intrusion means “intrusion of ideas, of privacy, of space and time boundaries” and more.
However, given the inevitability of internet activities in our digital age, she cited various options to avoid feelings of vulnerability or anxiety caused by online negativity. For one, she said that “setting boundaries is a mode of defence”, so blocking and deleting hurtful comments is an advisable method. Nina, Kaycee, and Emily affirmed this action, stating that it is an effective way of controlling online negativity. It is also their way to lessen negative conversations on their platforms, not just for their own ease but also for their audience.
Chew-Helbig also promoted cultivating healthy relationships both on-and-offline, highlighting that “the state of our mental health is related to our past, present, and future relationships”. By prioritising more nurturing connections, there can be a sense of stabilisation in one's holistic health.
Finally, she advised that developing one’s self-awareness allows a person to “understand one's own fixation on getting constant affirmation and validation from others” rather than relying on it. She acknowledged, however, that this can sound idealistic. So ultimately, if you find yourself constantly affected by online negativity, seeking professional help would be the best option to avoid matters to go out of hand.
Think before you post
There’s only so much that you can do or say to people about their online habits. But at the end of the day, we are reminded that while we can never control what someone is typing or posting somewhere, we can control what we post ourselves. These content creators, along with Dr. Chew-Helbig, stressed the importance of self-awareness — whether you’re the sender or the receiver of a negative comment. So what’s left for us now is as simple as turning this self-awareness and self-reflection into reality. Here’s to hoping that we can encourage positivity in all our spaces, may it be in our real-world or on digital.