Mental Health Effects of Reading Negative Comments Online

Woman reading comments online.

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The comments sections of social media and news outlets have become the new playground for online bullying. As a result, many news organizations are even choosing to eliminate comments altogether to avoid this problem.

Comment sections can devolve into insults, threats, arguments, and harassment if left unchecked. In fact, a 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 22% (one in five) Internet users had been victims of online harassment in the comment section of a website.

Who are these people posting nasty comments and why are we reading them? Why do we allow ourselves to be pulled into negative comment sections, or even worse be pulled into arguments in the comments sections, and what are the ultimate effects on our mental health?

While it’s true that negative comments online can affect our mental health in a negative way, there are steps that you can take to mitigate this problem in your own life. Let’s take a look at why comment sections are toxic, how they affect your mental health, and what to do about it.

Why Comment Sections Are Toxic

Why are comments sections toxic on social media and news outlet websites? It can sometimes seem as though one bad comment gets the ball rolling and then there is an avalanche of other toxic comments that follow behind it. There are multiple factors that contribute to the negativity in the comment section. Let’s consider those below.

Anonymity

The anonymity of the comment section means that nobody feels accountable for what they say. People may become militant simply because there are no checks and balances as there are in real life.

Online Disinhibition Effect

Similar to the anonymity effect is the online disinhibition effect. What would never be acceptable to do in person is somehow acceptable on the Internet where social norms cease to exist and anyone with a keyboard can say whatever they want (without repercussions).

Dehumanization

Another reason comment sections can become fighting grounds is that we tend to dehumanize others online. Instead of perceiving each other as a person at the other end of the computer, we imagine we are commenting into the void.

We can’t see the effect of our words on the person at the other end, we may not choose our language as carefully as we do in person, and any tendency toward aggression has no reason to be placed in check.

Lack of Real-Time Feedback

Comments on the Internet typically are much longer than what someone would say in real life before being interrupted by other people. In fact, a commenter can totally ignore feedback and keep commenting whatever they like without interruption. This makes it much easier for comment sections to be a breeding ground for venting negative emotions and anger.

For example, imagine going to return an item at a store and venting your anger at the person working the customer service desk while everyone is watching. You would only go so far before someone would step in.

However, this is what people do on Facebook Business pages all the time without much thought about how the message is being received (or perceived by others on social media).

Mob Mentality

Next, there is the mob mentality that forms in the comments sections, which contributes to their overall negativity. When one person says something negative, this opens the floodgates for others to do the same.

Platform Matters

Sites where anonymity is more preserved will tend to have more negative comments. For example, researchers found the highest number of rude comments and insults on YouTube. By contrast, platforms with lots of opposing viewpoints (e.g., Facebook political pages) are more likely to have commenters who are arguing or angry at each other.

Personality Factors

The final factor influencing the negativity of the comment section is the personality of those who post comments. Commenters are actually a minority of those who are online, tend to be male, have a lower level of education, and lower income (than those reading comments).

Commenters are also sometimes trolls who enjoy making people uncomfortable and are only there for this purpose.

Mental Health Impact of Negative Comments

Now that we know why negative comments exist, it’s important to consider how they affect your mental health. After all, why would you spend time on something that is making you feel bad? If we can understand how comments affect our mental health, then we can tweak our actions to end up feeling better.

Dopamine Addiction

If you have seen the movie the Social Dilemma, then you’ll know that the Facebook algorithm is predicated on the notion that they can manipulate users through an addiction to little “hits” of satisfaction (actually dopamine) when a user receives a “like,” comment, notification, or just finds something interesting in the feed.

Negative comments can work in much the same way. If you find yourself constantly reading comments when you should be working or are feeling bored, then you might be addicted to the comment section.

This can negatively impact your mental health because you’ll turn to reading comments when you should be doing other things, leaving you feeling unmotivated and as though you’ve accomplished nothing.

Depression and Negativity

Reading negative comments online has the effect of making you feel more negative. If you wake up first thing and start to read negative comments online, you’ll end up starting your day feeling negative.

And if you become addicted to reading negative comments online, you may even end up facing some symptoms of depression.

Anxiety

Reading negative comments online might also leave you feeling anxious, particularly if you read comments that create fear or make you question your own choices. Those who are predisposed to anxiety disorders (e.g., having a genetic predisposition) should take extra care when engaging online.

Attention Span

When is the last time you read a full-length novel? If you spend most of your time reading negative comments online, you will also find it harder to pay attention to things that require a longer attention span.

The good thing is that spending time doing hobbies that don't involve a short attention span can reverse some of this damage to your attention span.

Self Esteem and Confidence

If you end up reading negative comments about yourself online, you could end up feeling less confident or have reduced self-esteem. For this reason it's important to check in with yourself about how you are feeling before and after reading comments online. If you feel worse about yourself after reading someone's comment, that's a good sign to avoid that comment section or person.

Body Image

If you struggle with your body image and then read negative comments online about how you look or how other people look, this may worsen your thoughts.

Distorted thoughts about your body image may lead to disordered eating patterns and other related problems. This can be the first step toward an eating disorder for those who are already vulnerable.

How can you know if reading negative comments online is affecting your mental health? The best thing to do is to be aware of the signs and symptoms of addiction, depression, anxiety, attention deficit, poor self esteem, and body image problems to keep a close eye on how they are making you feel.

Healthy Ways to Cope With Negative Comments

If you feel as though reading negative comments online is impacting your mental health negatively, what can you do about it? Below are some suggestions of actions that you can take today to minimize the impact of reading these types of comments online if you are struggling.

Choose Your Platforms Wisely

Different social and news platforms will attract different types of people in the comment sections. If you are concerned about reading negative comments online, stay away from platforms with an anonymous element, since people will have less reason to censor themselves when they realize nobody knows who they are.

Avoid Reading Negative Comments

This may seem oversimplified, but one way to ease yourself out of an addiction to reading negative comments would be to set a time limit to how long you will allow yourself to read, respond to, or think about online comments. For example, you might decide that you will only spend five minutes reading comments on social media, and avoid comments on news outlets websites altogether.

Have Strong Attitudes and Values

Research has shown that having strong attitudes and values will make it less likely that you will be swayed by what you read in the comment section. This means that in order for comments to affect you less, it’s important to know what you stand for and have the courage and conviction to stick to your principles and values regardless of what else you read online.

Educate Yourself

It’s also been shown that lacking knowledge on a topic can lead you to trust other people’s opinions (and comments). For this reason, do your research and educate yourself on topics (outside of the comment section).

Read trusted sources of information and form your own opinion rather than relying on what you learn from the comment sections of news sites or social media pages.

Focus on Positive Comments

If you want to reduce the negative impact of reading online comments, one of the best things you can do is to focus only on reading positive comments. Comments from friends who offer social support will increase your well-being and have a positive effect. These comments are best if they come from people who you are close to and friends with in real life.

By the same token, there is value in protecting yourself from negative comments on your own social media pages. If you are receiving negative comments, it’s OK to unfriend, unfollow, block, and delete.

Leave Positive Comments for Others

Do you want to start a positivity train for others as well? Stop clicking “like” and start leaving positive comments on other people’s posts. Positive comments will inspire more positive comments, and the first comment in a thread is critical for shaping how all other people respond.

If the first comment is negative, you’ll notice that this sets the tone for the discussion through emotional contagion. Seeing more positive comments will encourage others to be positive as well. The side benefit will be that you end up reading more positive comments overall if you are creating them yourself.

Limit Screen Time

Beyond limiting how much time you spend reading comments, you can also limit your screen time in general to reduce the amount of time you spend reading negative things online. There are multiple problems with excessive screen time, such as problems sleeping after blue light exposure at night and reduced motivation to do other tasks.

Set a rule for yourself that you’ll turn off your phone at least 45 minutes before your bedtime. Schedule media-free time slots in your day when you will not go on your devices. Then go and do something like go for a walk in nature, do some meditation, write in a journal, or call a friend.

Find Other Hobbies

Jumping off from the last suggestion, if you are finding that negative comments online are affecting your mental health, it could be that you need to take up some hobbies to take your mind off of what you’ve read. Things like reading novels (romance, mystery, paranormal, sci-fi—whatever you like) is one way to escape. Taking up a hobby like knitting or crochet lets your mind rest while your hands work.

Finally, hobbies that involve physical labor like working in the garden or doing home renovations get your body moving, which increases endorphins and makes you feel good (especially if you are missing that dopamine hit from opening your Facebook app). Use a daily mood tracker to see how you feel each day, and notice whether doing more hobbies and less screen time makes you feel better overall.

Focus on Connection

Has everyone forgotten that the whole point of social media was to connect? Possibly so, although many people are still trying to use it for this purpose. While the Internet can leave you feeling lonely, it can also be a tool to help you feel less lonely if used in an intentional way.

If you are forced to distance yourself from other people for any reason, such as moving away from friends, living with a debilitating illness, or changing jobs, social media can help you to stay connected. Just make sure that when you do go online, you aren’t spending your precious time reading comments.

Instead, focus your time on connecting. This can be especially helpful if you live with social anxiety or feel awkward in person. Curate a friends list of people that make you feel happy and positive, and then try to connect with them as much as you can. While eliminating being online might not be possible in the world we live in, being intentional about what you do when you are there is totally possible.

Work on Your Activism

Are there any causes that you believe in or special interests that you have? If that’s the case, spend your time online fighting for what you believe in and connecting with other people who believe in the same thing as you (or who have the same special interest).

Don’t go online in the hopes of changing other people’s opinions if they don’t agree with you; rather, share positive posts about your special interest or activism efforts. For example, a vegan could share delicious recipes that they have cooked, or a coin collecting enthusiast could share about a convention that they attended.

The goal here is to find your special niche and become part of a group so that you have a purpose rather than mindlessly reading comments online.

Avoid the Negative

If only it were that easy, right? The truth is that if you want to stay away from negative comments online, it can be done (except for your personal pages if someone is trolling you). Simply avoid sites where you know the comments will be negative.

For example, if you tend to visit one particular news site but always end up reading the troll comments, find another news source that doesn’t allow comments. By the same token, if you follow a Facebook page that entices its followers to post militant comments, unfollow the page.

Be More Critical

Another way to manage how negative comments affect you is to be more critical of what you read. Consider the source, consider what the person’s motivation might be, and ask for a second opinion if you need it.

For example, if a friend always posts negative things on your Facebook posts, try to understand their motivation, ask them to send you a private message, and generally stand your ground when you don't agree with what someone has posted (about you or in general).

Examine Your Predisposition

What are your predispositions before you go online? Are you feeling depressed, anxious, or worried about how you look? Remember that the algorithms in most social media apps are designed to show you more of what you interact with.

For that reason, avoid going online when you are experiencing negative emotions because you will go down a rabbit hole of more negative emotions. Instead, pull out a journal and write about how you are feeling or ask a friend over for a cup of tea to do some much-needed venting.

Be Aware of the Algorithm

It’s worth mentioning that as much as the algorithm is set up to show you more of what you are interested in, you can also upset the algorithm in your favor.

For example, if you are feeling down or negative when you go online, try to purposely interact with positive posts or videos. The algorithm isn’t smart enough to know how you are actually feeling; it only knows what you are telling it through your actions.

Make sure that you are careful about how you approach social media, and you can have it mirror back positivity to you instead of negativity. 

A Word From Verywell

If you are still finding that your mental health is poor from reading negative comments online, you may be dealing with a mental health issue that requires professional help. In that case, it’s important to reach out for help from your doctor or another mental health professional that can offer specialized support.

In addition, if you are the victim of abuse, bullying, harassment, threats, etc. on the Internet, then it’s important to take the appropriate actions such as blocking and reporting to authorities as necessary. Keep records of all interactions, such as text messages, chat windows, comment sections, direct messages etc. Having a record of everything that has happened will make it much easier to prove your case (and save your mental health).

Finally, if you are truly struggling with being unable to stop reading negative comments online, ask yourself why you continue to do something that makes you feel bad.

  • Was there some recent event that triggered this behavior?
  • Is it just a bad habit that you’ve developed?
  • Are you avoiding a problem in your life?

If so, It may be best for you to avoid social media and comment sections entirely until you improve your mental health. The addictive nature and content of these sections are not helpful if you are struggling.

Regardless of whether all your friends are on social media apps, you can generally still communicate with them without being in the feeds. While the risk of being online at all is real, the real risk is becoming addicted to the algorithm feeding you more of what you watch.

If you are intentional about what you do online, your mental health won’t suffer. If you’re worried about feeling left out or missing out on the discoverability of some apps, choose a time limit for the feeds and stick to it rather than scrolling endlessly and losing hours of your life that you will never get back.

Setting a limit for your time in the comment section and feeds is the single most important thing you can do for your mental health. And if that seems too hard, get an accountability partner who will ask you how much time you are spending online. Instead, spend time in the chat with that person who knows what you are struggling with.

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Article Sources
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  1. Pew Research Center. About 1 in 5 Victims of Online Harassment Say it Happened in the Comments Section.

  2. Bogomilova A. How reading online comments affects us.