The right computer password can offer a mental health ’booster’

Arts & Humanities

A new UBC and NYU Shanghai research study has found self-affirming written passw
A new UBC and NYU Shanghai research study has found self-affirming written passwords - such as ’MusicCalmsMeDown@123’-- can offer a boost to one’s mental health.
Erik Rolfsen

The characters you type out over and over again into your digital devices may impact your mental health more than you might expect.

A new UBC and NYU Shanghai research study has found self-affirming written passwords - such as "MusicCalmsMeDown@123"-- can offer a boost to one’s mental health.

The research published in Internet Interventions focused on how such log-in codes impacted the well-being of first-year sexual minority undergraduates at both UBC and NYU Shanghai in coping with sexual orientation microaggressions, including homophobic name-calling, during the first six weeks of university.

"We were thinking, with self-affirmation passwords, people can be reminded of what’s important to them whenever they log in to their laptops or computers," says lead author Dr. Gu Li (he/him), assistant professor of psychology at NYU Shanghai, who first began the study in 2019 while at UBC.

In this way, a password could be used as a timely "booster" for a writing-based intervention, explains Dr. Li, and help mitigate a stressful situation and subsequent decrease in psychological well-being.

The research team sampled 296 students, which made the study one of the largest psychological interventions on sexual minority people. The first cohort focused on UBC students in 2019, and in the following year, expanded to include students in Shanghai.

Participants were randomly assigned to either complete a self-affirmation writing exercise and create a self-affirming computer password to use for six weeks, or complete a control writing exercise and create a control computer password.

Students who used their self-affirming passwords less than five times per day did not note any benefit. However, those who used them more frequently experienced smaller decreases in psychological well-being over the study period.

Sexual minority students who used control passwords containing no self-affirmation showed a decrease in psychological well-being over the first months of university.

These results are promising, says co-author Dr. Frances Chen (she/her), associate professor, UBC department of psychology.

"I think it works off one of the very basic principles of trying to change people’s behaviour or thought processes-that you really have to make it as simple as possible," observes Dr. Chen.

"All of us are busy. All of us have a million things going on in our lives, so asking people to add a brand new habit to their daily routine may not be realistic for everyone."

She adds: "We all use passwords anyway. It’s a relatively low-cost, low-effort change."

Many participants asked to keep their chosen self-affirming passwords even after the research period ended, noted Dr. Li.

"Most of us are familiar with how immunization ’boosters’ protect our physical health. Psychological boosters function in a similar way. They can help to protect our mental health when we encounter threats," said Dr. Chen.

The research discovery highlights opportunities for other types of psychological interventions using passwords, said Dr. Li.

Further study could reveal wider-reaching applications. For instance, computer passwords could be used for gratitude interventions to remind people to be grateful for the people and things in life.

Moving forward, Dr. Li would like to expand his research and test the method in other countries where disadvantaged groups have less access to mental health care.

"The findings from this study provide a low-cost, low-burden, and timely intervention booster to ease undergraduate students’ transition into university -- perhaps especially for those who are under stress but do not have equal access to mental health services."

Interview language(s): English, Mandarin (Dr. Li)

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