Digital Hoarding: The Modern Day Clutter You Need to Address
What are hoarders and how do I know if I am one?
You may be familiar with TV shows documenting the lives of extreme hoarders and their struggle to part with items that, for other people, are just clutter. According to Mayo Clinic, hoarding disorder is a mental health condition in which people have difficulty parting with items because of an intense need to keep them. It is categorized by health professionals as a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorder, although it has its own unique symptoms. Around 2 - 6 percent of Americans are known to struggle with hoarding disorder.
Hoarders experience emotional distress when thinking about throwing away items, even if they have little to no monetary value, which leads them to accumulate more things. They may not fully realize the extent of the problem, despite warnings from friends and family members, making the disorder difficult to treat. But the need to hold onto things in excessive quantities can impact their quality of life. Extreme hoarders often collect so much stuff that it fills up every available surface: cupboards, tables, stoves, and stairways get so packed that it is impossible to live a normal life. Living conditions become cramped and even unsanitary, and the hopes of leading a clutter-free life disappear.
Why do hoarders accumulate so much stuff?
Those not suffering from hoarding disorder may find it unimaginable that anyone could live in such extreme conditions. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and hoarders genuinely feel the stuff they hold so dear is important. They tend to feel an emotional attachment to the items, using them to remember happy times or memories with loved ones. Moreover, hoarders may believe that they will need to use the items sometime in the future, or be worried about waste.
Isn’t hoarding the same as collecting?
Hoarding and collecting are two distinctly different things. Common collectors’ items include stamps, foreign currency, and comic books, and are carefully compared and selected by people with a genuine interest in the history and design of the item. They are usually kept meticulously clean and displayed in cabinets or display cases. However, hoarding is a disorganized accumulation of random things without considering their condition or value, and tends to negatively impact a person’s daily life.
What is digital hoarding?
Is your email inbox overflowing? Are you constantly receiving phone notifications saying you are almost out of storage? If so, you may be a digital hoarder.
Digital hoarding is the unwillingness to delete digital data that is no longer useful. Although some people may just forget to delete old data, others experience a reluctance that is linked to mental health conditions like anxiety. In this way, there may be some similarities between physical and digital hoarders.
Types of digital hoarding
It is easy to fall victim to digital hoarding. After all, it is impossible to trip over a pile of old text messages. So what are the common types of digital hoarding?
1. Inbox clutter
The average American has 15 unread emails. These may include newsletters or unopened advertising emails, and going through each one can be time-consuming. Some people sort emails into specific folders in an attempt to get organized, but these can be forgotten over time, creating more clutter.
2. Unused apps
It seems like everyone is glued to their phones nowadays as they integrate more into our daily lives. Want to take the perfect picture? No problem! Need to pay a bill? There is an app for that! So it may be unsurprising that the average person has around 40 apps installed on their phone, with over half going unused. But whether you realize it or not, unused apps are a form of digital hoarding.
3. Overflowing photo gallery
It is common to take photos on fun days out, family vacations, and nights out with friends. But our digital photo galleries may also include insignificant images like a parking space at the convenience store you visited two years ago or the phone number of a pizza restaurant you ordered from once. Americans have an average of 582 photos saved on their cell phones, and if you’re constantly deleting photos to make room for more, you may be a digital hoarder.
Why do we hang on to digital data unnecessarily?
Hoarders collect clutter; digital hoarders collect photos and apps. The behavior of hoarders accumulating physical items may be difficult to understand, but digital hoarding is more commonplace than we think. Like physical hoarders, digital hoarders are reluctant to delete old images and messages due to an emotional connection to the person or memory. They may be keeping an old photo on the off-chance they will need it someday or waiting for the perfect time to share that meme screenshot from years ago.
Here are some different types of digital hoarders and their common traits.
1. Anxious, ‘just-in-case’ hoarders
Some people accumulate browser bookmarks or old emails due to a fear of needing them in the future. They might worry that they will delete the files right before they are needed, making them hold on just a little longer. Although the value of such data may be unclear, one motivation may be that anxious hoarders worry about being unable to find the same information again.
2. Accidental hoarders due to data mismanagement
While some people are more intentional about retaining data, others do it accidentally. Accidental hoarders may not realize they hold so much data and feel overwhelmed at the thought of deleting countless emails or photos. As there is no emotional connection to the data they hold, sifting through years of accumulated data seems like a waste of time, so they prefer to adopt an “ignorance is bliss” approach instead.
3. Responsible, compliant hoarders
Compliant digital hoarders do not choose to accumulate large amounts of data—it is a workplace protocol. They have no emotional attachment to the data but may see holding on to it as part of their workplace responsibility. Compliant hoarders may worry about deleting emails in case their boss suddenly asks to see them years later.
4. Rational, organized hoarders
These systematic hoarders hold large amounts of well-organized data in dedicated folders or files. These files are well-maintained, and organized hoarders have a reason for exactly why they hold onto them. This type of hoarder has impeccable oversight of their data collection and can pull out emails or photos from years ago at the touch of a button.
Why is it important to stop digital hoarding?
Regularly maintaining and deleting old data helps to keep a better overview of important information. It also boosts efficiency as people can access information quickly without sifting through thousands of files. Device users will also feel more relaxed, as constantly receiving notifications or deleting files to create more storage space is stressful and reduces productivity. As hoarding is a type of mental illness, more and more researchers are looking into the negative mental health impact of digital hoarding, too.
Besides mental health concerns, there are also practical concerns about data hoarding. Unencrypted files holding sensitive information are at risk of being hacked, which can have huge implications for personal or workplace privacy. The bottom line is that the more digital data users keep, the more exposed they are to cyber-attacks or data theft.
Data hoarding is a common issue among Americans. If you think you might be a digital hoarder, do not despair — it is possible to get your digital data collection back on track with a few hours of streamlining. Start by unsubscribing from irrelevant newsletters or marketing emails, and be vigilant if anything unwanted pops up in your inbox. Much like going clothes shopping, ask yourself: “do I really need this?” when downloading a new app. Put time aside to delete apps and only download ones if it is really necessary to prevent apps from collecting data in the background and sending annoying push notifications. Deleting unused information and regularly removing digital clutter will benefit you in the long run.
Jeni is a translator and writer based in Taiwan. She is passionate about business development and loves helping companies enter international markets. She is fluent in English, German, and Mandarin Chinese, and combines these with her industry experience to provide practical market entry solutions.