Laurie Hernandez earned the moniker “The Human Emoji” because of her effervescent personality and infectious wide-eyed grin, but the Olympic gold medalist and Dancing with the Stars winner admits she’s not always smiling — especially while looking at social media.
“Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, they can be really harsh places,” Hernandez, 17, tells PEOPLE. “People feel some sense of empowerment, whether good or bad, when they are behind a screen and a username.”
Though she’s currently on a year-long break from competition, the teen leads a busy life with global appearances and partnerships — many of which she posts about on her Instagram page.
“I’m always on social media, of course,” says Hernandez, an Alcon Dailies contact lenses spokesperson. “So I’ve learned to ignore the online trolls in the comments, because I’ve realized that if you met that person in real life, they would never say that to your face.
“And if someone is mean, I’m like, ‘Well what are you going to do about it? You’re behind a screen!’ ”
“It happens in sports, but thankfully my teammates are so kind and supportive,” she explains. “We all stand with each other, you have to, because kindness wins.”
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With support and mutual respect, the young women — who keep in touch through a group text where they send “silly” memes and photos to each other — build each other up when they encounter cyberbullies.
“Even though we’re all traveling, we FaceTime and text and we’re always talking,” says Hernandez. “They’re such a comfort.”