After the U.S. women’s gymnastics team clinched gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, star athlete Gabby Douglas returned to her room in the Olympic Village and cried.
“I Googled myself after the team final competition and I just wanted to see something positive, because coming from Olympic trials I got a lot of flack for being on the team,” she tells PEOPLE. “I stayed off social media until after team finals, when I Googled myself – which I probably shouldn’t have done. And that was when it all started.”
Douglas, who also took home two gold medals in the 2012 Olympics – including the team all-around — was being bullied online. For not putting her hand on her heart during the American National Anthem. For her hair. For not smiling enough. For not being “patriotic enough.”
“I wonder how many times I cried,” she admits. “Probably enough to fill so many gallons of water. And it would be like, deep, emotional cries because I was so hurt.”
The 20-year-old – who will celebrate her 21st birthday on New Year’s Eve – says she eventually taught herself to not sweat the hate, but contends, “It took a while.”
Now, she’s committed to helping others get to the same place.
Melissa J. Perenson/CSM/REX/Shutterstock
Douglas has signed on as Hack Harassment‘s first-ever Change Ambassador. Hack Harassment, which was launched by Intel, Vox Media, Recode and Lady Gaga‘s Born This Way Foundation, works to promote “safer, more inclusive online experiences” through awareness and youth involvement.
“There are so many things that I’m going to be doing — this is very fresh and very new,” Douglas tells PEOPLE. “There’s so many events coming up. I’m going to be going to different campuses and just siting down with these kids, getting personal and just giving them different advice and different tips. Use social media smarter, for positive things and things that matter.”
Douglas will encourage those who’ve dealt with bullying to talk about it, she says. As someone who once internalized much of her pain, Douglas realizes the importance of letting it all out.
“It was just boiling inside me and I never talked about it. I kept everything in,” she explains. “I was starting to change. I was trying to be a people pleaser, because I hadn’t experienced that and I wanted to make it stop. So I was like, ‘Okay, let me do that, let me smile, let me clap more, let me stand up.’ I was just so distracted while competing and I was changing. I wasn’t the same Gabby. I was changing for other people.”
She further advises anyone who’s been harassed, “Stand up for yourself … Stay strong and don’t listen to the lies, because they really are lies. They just try to get you down, and something must be going on in their lives. Never lose sight of how important you are.”
Douglas admits that it’s easy for bullies to hide behind “fake user names and fake pictures,” making it easier to not be held accountable for mean words. She encourages everyone to take Hack Harassment’s pledge to act with compassion for others while on the Internet.
“I want to be able to relate to people who have been bullied because I’ve been there,” Douglas says. “I want them to feel strong about themselves and not listen to the negativity.
“I want them to take away: ‘I’m a strong individual and my life is just more valuable and more important than listening to the people who want to tear you down.’ I want them to feel strong and inspirational, and when they see something wrong to do something about it, not just talk —actually put some action behind the words.”