Many of us type our computer passwords out multiple times per day, and according to a new study, this may be good news for our mental health. The study found that self-affirming passwords with positive messages helped boost undergraduate students’ psychological well-being.
The study was led by Gu Li, an assistant professor of psychology at NYU Shanghai and former postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia, and published in Internet Interventions.
Writing-based psychological interventions — for example, journaling exercises — are often used as a form of mental health treatment. Yet for university students, it can be difficult to find time for extra writing exercises. It’s also difficult to access proper mental health supports on campus.
As a way of supporting students who are at risk of mental health crises, the team behind the study was interested in developing a low-cost, low-burden mental health “booster”. In particular, Li and colleagues wondered whether short self-affirmations could be built into something we already every day: typing our computer passwords.
To learn more, the researchers behind the study surveyed undergraduate students at both UBC and NYU Shanghai. They focused their study on sexual minority undergraduate students, who are often at risk of poor mental health due to sexuality-based microaggressions they face on campus.
At the beginning of the study, students were asked to participate in a self-affirmation exercise to help them develop their passwords. This involved choosing a value that was important to them (for example, athletic or artistic ability), writing about why it was important to them, and then summarizing their thoughts into a computer password that included I/my/me pronouns — for example, “MusicCalmsMeDown@123”.
A second, control group of students was asked to create a new control password instead. In both cases, students were asked to disable biometric login options on their devices to ensure that they would use their passwords throughout the study period.
The researchers found that students who typed their passwords more than five times per day reported smaller decreases in psychological well-being at the end of the study. In contrast, students who rarely typed their passwords, as well as those in the control group, reported higher rates of decreased mental health after six weeks.
The researchers believe that the self-affirming passwords helped act as a buffer for students who are at risk of poor mental health. Sexual minority undergraduates often experience decreased mental well-being upon starting university, but by regularly typing self-affirming phrases, the students in the experimental group were able to protect their mental health.
Li and colleagues see their findings as an easy-to-implement mental health booster for undergraduate students. Going forward, they also hope to investigate the impact of self-affirming passwords among other populations without easy 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,” Li said in a press release.
“[P]erhaps especially for those who are under stress but do not have equal access to mental health services.”