'Modern Family' 's Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter Talk Difficulties of Growing Up in the Public Eye

"It's made us stronger as we get older," Ariel Winter said of the public scrutiny that came with being a child star on Modern Family

Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter have changed a lot of their 11 years on Modern Family, and doing so in public eye hasn’t been easy.

During a panel appearance at the 2020 Television Critics Association on Wednesday, the two actresses — who play sisters on the hit ABC sitcom — looked back on their time on the comedy and the challenges of growing up in the spotlight.

Things were particularly hard for both stars as they each faced a sea of criticism from trolls online about their appearance.

Winter was just 11 when Modern Family premiered in September 2019, while Hyland was 18. Over the course of the next decade, both would see shifts in their bodies, with Winter going through puberty and Hyland tacking a series of health complications that often led to weigh fluctuations.

“It’s really difficult to grow up in front of millions of people who have an opinion on everything you do, and who are allowed to say it at any point,” said Winter, who turns 22 on Jan. 28. “[They] think they know you really well, and they think they can comment on everything you wear, everything you do, or how you grow up and change.”

“People really love to attack women especially,” added Hyland, 29.

Grab Cut Insert Cut The 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Cocktail Reception
Kevin Winter/Getty

Both gave examples of times they felt especially vulnerable.

“I especially hated the year I had braces,” Winter recalled. “I do have to say it was a really awkward year for me because I also went through puberty that summer. So it was, like, I had episodes with me in braces. And then over the summer, once we wrapped, I had … other things … and I looked different, but I still wasn’t quite, you know, fully through puberty.”

“I cannot stand — I think it’s, like, season 4 or 5 — because I had very bad Prednisone face and I gained, like, 30 pounds,” Hyland said, referencing an immunosuppressant medication that can lead to acne as a side effect. “And that, for me, was something that Ariel and I were, I think, going through around the same time.”

So how did Winter and Hyland make it through those tough times? By leaning on one another, and learning the art of the clap-back.

“We have great support in each other,” Winter said. “It’s made us stronger as we get older.”

“I think Ariel is such an amazing woman and has always been so mature and handles it with such grace and poise,” Hyland added. “I think, between the two of us, we really have gone and tackled them with all of our spite and wit.”

Sarah Hyland
Amy Sussman/Getty
Ariel Winter
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

After their panel, Winter elaborated more on the challenges while speaking to the press, explaining that the biggest lesson she’s learned over the years is how to respond to comments like that.

“I’ve responded to it in so many different ways. I’d respond back and be salty to somebody that was salty to me, or I’d be respond and try and be nice and hope that maybe their day goes better,” Winter told reporters. “I regret being salty, but I never wanted to hurt anybody and I never wanted to be mean to anybody. It was just about protecting myself and protecting the people I love because people also attack people.”

“Everything for me is a learning experience,” she said. “I learned from what I did and I moved on.”

Ultimately, Winter says the experience gave her “a thicker skin.” But that doesn’t mean hateful comments don’t hurt her.

“It’s still going to bother me. It’s never going to go away,” Winter said. “You’re still human, but you just have to remember these people online and what they’re saying, it’s not your opinion of yourself.”

“Self-care is important,” Winter stressed. “Take time for yourself. Develop how you feel about yourself and your own confidence.”

Asked by PEOPLE if she had any advice for other younger actors growing up in the public eye, Winter said to “remember the people around you are the people that matter.”

“Your opinion of yourself is what matters,” Winter said. “Don’t let rejection stop you from doing what you want to do.”

The final season of Modern Family airs Wednesdays (9 p.m. ET) on ABC.

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