Nasty words: why post horrible comments online?

Using the internet allows people to connect with so much in this world, but it also allows people to hide behind the screen, whether it be a screen on a laptop, phone, or another device. Being able to hide behind these screens enables people to say horrible things online, causing varying levels of upset and potential effects on people’s mental health. I have been a user of online forums for over ten years, as well as having multiple social media accounts. By using online forums, I have had the pleasure of speaking to a variety of people over the years, usually about various television programmes I have been watching. We talk about the plot, the characters, the actors and what we think is going to happen next. It’s become a habit, but was once an outlet and an escape from the real world. I have very rarely had any negative experiences with this, sometimes I’ve had disagreements with other forums members, but at the end of the day, it’s just a difference of opinion. However, very recently I was called a b***h by another forum user.

The example

Why did someone call me this? Well, it was because I created a forum thread about a celebrity who had won a reality competition. The person’s problem was that it was on a different part of the forum and it had then spoiled it for them because they hadn’t seen the show yet. Years ago, a comment like that would have hurt me, but I’m now old enough to rise above it, shake it off, and remember that I don’t even know this person, and they don’t know me, not even my real name. But why did they say it? Yes it could have been a lot worse, but it’s still an insult, a derogatory comment aimed towards me as a person, not the online enigma I have created over the years of using the forum. The important question I ask about this is this; would this person have called me that to my face? I highly doubt it, especially over something so trivial. So why did they feel they could say it online?

The reality

My experience is very minor compared to the nasty comments thousands of people post every day; comments that go way beyond my tiny experience of this. Comments that are vile. Comments that are so bad that even the police have had to be involved in some cases. If I was a celebrity or a person in the public eye, I don’t think I could handle having any social media accounts – not ones that I could look at anyway. I would hate to be able to see any negative comment, no matter how minor, against me. However, thousands, probably even millions, of comments are posted every day that are insulting. These range from commenting on someone’s appearance, sexual orientation, their family and many, many, more…the list is unfortunately endless. The comment made against me was subsequently removed after myself and other users reported it to the moderators, but people still saw it. That’s a major problem with the internet; just because something is not there anymore, it still was at one point. The comments were still seen and they still made an impact.

I won’t pretend to understand exactly how the internet works, but I do know that people can be tracked, if they need to be, after posting something online. There have been various high profile cases where threats have been made by ‘anonymous’ posters and the perpetrator has been tracked down and punished by the law. But these are extreme circumstances. These are not minor cases, such as mine. Minor cases which would warrant nothing more than an apology. But these smaller incidents are at a shockingly high rate online; you only have look at a high profile person’s tweet on Twitter to see horrible comments - comments that insult the person and say things that are not even relevant to what has been posted. It must be very difficult to track such a huge amount of comments, and some would also be subjective in how they are viewed, but an example of such tracking was in 2014 where a survey by Dove and Twitter found that over five million negative tweets were posted regarding body image and beauty. I would like to think that the huge number of people who say horrible things would not actually act the same if they were not doing this by typing into a screen over the internet. I would also like to think that people would not be so cruel or so vile with what they say to another human being. But it’s the internet, so it’s fair game…right? Wrong.

The consequences

The consequences are far less obvious if you type a comment to someone rather than say it to them, especially if you don’t even know the person, but people who do so are also oblivious to the effect such comments have. In my own example, that person’s comment hasn’t affected me (other than giving me the idea to write this article), but I also think this is because it was on a forum. Had this comment been on Twitter, I think I would have been more hurt. Why? Because Twitter is more personal. A lot of people’s Twitter accounts are like their Facebook accounts – I think they are more likely to use their real names and therefore have a more ‘human’ presence online. In contrast, on online forums accounts and usernames are created and the users could be anyone; it’s more difficult to personalise an account on them, in my opinion.

However, any horrible comment has the potential of causing mental distress. Social media as a whole is a minefield as it has the potential to cause harm due to the impact is has on people’s lives. To some people, it isn’t even on their radar, but to others, especially the younger generation who have grown up with it and don’t know a world where it doesn’t exist, it is a huge part of their identity. In 2017, it was found that social media was one of the reasons for why girls and young women were experiencing, and experienced, a mental crisis throughout the previous ten years, with anxiety and depressing severely rising in that time frame. One tiny comment may not seem as much, but what if multiple people think the same and all post that one comment. It could then become something much worse. Perhaps the best thing is to not post such comments at all.

The solution?

Unfortunately we live in a world where the internet can be a source of anxiety, fear, and plain nastiness. And even more unfortunately, I don’t think it will ever change, not as a whole anyway. However, hopefully to anyone reading this article, it will make you think. Maybe you are not someone who writes horrible comments, which is great. Maybe you’re nodding along with my words and also don’t understand what makes someone think it is OK to post nasty online comments. But maybe you are someone reading this who has posted something online that could be seen to be horrible. Maybe you didn’t realise the effects it could have, or maybe you did. I’m not here to lecture, I’m hopefully here to just make you think; and my advice to anyone thinking about writing a negative or horrible comment anywhere online is this:

  • Think about why you are going to say this – does it really need to be said?
  • Think about what the person’s reaction could be – is the comment worth the potential upset it could cause the recipient?
  • Is saying this comment going to make you feel any better afterwards? If not, then why are you writing the comment in the first place?
  • Would you say this comment to the person’s face? If you wouldn’t, then why are you saying it online?

I can’t stop anyone from saying nasty words on the internet, but hopefully this article can make someone think twice before saying horrible things online; words that could potentially be harmful to a person who can’t even be seen.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach