How Digital Hoarding May Affect Mental Health

By David Konow 02/13/19

Cluttered desktops and unread emails may be taking more of a toll on the psyche than previously thought.

woman stressed out about digital hoarding

When people think of hoarding, they often imagine people from the TV show Hoarders, who amass heaping piles of junk that they were never able to part ways with. But there is also a phenomenon called “digital hoarding,” where people can't get rid of digital items.

Some experts believe that digital hoarding may be harmful to your mental health.

In a recent survey from Summit Hosting, 6.6% of people in the United States are holding on to 1,000-3,000 unread emails, while 1.9% have over 20,000 unread emails. The average American has also saved nearly 600 cellphone pictures, as well as nearly 100 bookmarked webpages, and has over 20 icons on their desktops, and even more clutter filling up cyberspace.

A case study published in the journal BMJ on digital hoarding examined a man in his late forties who would take thousands of pictures every week, and spend hours everyday organizing them on his computer. As it turns out, the man wasn’t just hoarding digital files, but he was also hoarding clutter in his apartment that he didn’t need like paper scraps and bicycle parts.

In the case report, Dr. Martine van Bennekom, a psychiatrist, explained that the man “enjoyed taking the photos. However, the processing and saving of the digital pictures caused suffering and distress.”

While treating the man, Bennekom felt that digital hoarding should indeed be “classified as a subtype of hoarding disorder,” according to Live Science.

Bennekom feels that if "digital hoarding" is defined as a disorder, it would be much easier for doctors to diagnose and treat people. Yet other doctors aren’t so sure about this and feel it could still be too early to classify digital hoarding as a disorder. (Funnily enough, some doctors who treat hoarders often encourage them to save items digitally to help make more space in their homes.)

Healthline reports that Jo Ann Oravec, PhD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, saw the effects of digital hoarding in her students. With an overload of notes, PowerPoint information, PDFs, and personal items, her students felt overwhelmed by the volume of material they piled up over time.

For these students, digital hoarding also became a self-perpetuating cycle where they kept adding to their piles.

As Oravec explains, “Educational and social technologies were designed to make it easier for student to engage in critical thinking and analysis as well as in interpersonal interaction. Nevertheless, [they’ve] triggered a sense that ‘more is better.’”

Oravec would find her students coming to her “with inches of printed materials they’ve accumulated and then asking, ‘How do I find more?’”

Many hoarders hang on to things they think they’ll need in the future, or that they’re attached to emotionally. If you already exhibit signs of being a hoarder, you’re more likely to be hoarding things digitally as well.

Nick Neave, the director of the Hoarding Research Group, says that “everyone appears to be at risk of digital hoarding, especially in relation to work. Organizations bombard their employees with all manner of information that they don’t know what to do with, and just to be ‘safe,’ they keep it.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.