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Digital hoarding: definition, types, and symptoms

Reading time: 21 mins
Digital hoarding

Digital hoarding is the compulsive accumulation of digital data, files, and information by an individual to the extent that it impairs their ability to organize, manage, or effectively use these digital resources. Digital hoarders have difficulty letting go of digital items, resulting in cluttered digital spaces and potential negative consequences.

The causes of digital hoarding can be fear of losing important information or cherished memories. The widespread availability of large and affordable data storage devices, coupled with a lack of the need for selectivity, encourages data hoarding without restraint. Emotional attachment to digital files is another reason for digital hoarding, particularly for sentimental items like photos and messages. Procrastination, technological difficulties, unlimited storage space, longevity of electronic content, security and privacy concerns, and social and professional pressures also contribute to the reluctance to delete digital content, leading to underestimating the volume of content being hoarded. 

The symptoms of digital hoarding include the excessive accumulation of digital files, emails, or data, difficulty organizing and categorizing digital information, and anxiety or distress when attempting to delete or declutter digital items. Moreover, ineffective time management is a frequent symptom, often leading to isolation and neglect of important tasks related to managing digital clutter. Lastly, defensiveness sets in as digital hoarders become emotionally attached to their possessions and resist efforts to clean or organize.

The treatments for digital hoarding are cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness and self-compassion, motivational interviewing, self-help resources, and medication in severe cases.

Digital hoarding types are inbox clutter, overflowing photo gallery, unused apps, accidental hoarders, anxious hoarders, compliance hoarders, organized hoarders, and lastly collector hoarders.

What is digital hoarding?

Digital hoarding (DH) is a developing subcategory within the hoarding disorder (HD) condition, during which individuals store an excessive volume of digital content, which causes stress and anxiety. Clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences E. Maidenberg described digital hoarding as a contemporary version of an old psychological condition. In the WordSense Online Dictionary, digital hoarding is defined as excessive accumulation and reluctance to get rid of digital content that is no longer useful.

In 2013, the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognized hoarding disorder as a distinct condition, however, digital hoarding is not yet acknowledged by DSM-5.

Due to the affordability, and user-friendliness of modern technological devices like smartphones and wearables, the rapid expansion of social media and communication applications, and the increasing prevalence of digital interactions, individuals easily collect, share, and archive digital content more extensively than ever before, as described in the 2022 issue of the Information & Management, titled “Modern-day hoarding: A model for understanding and measuring digital hoarding“.

What is the other term for digital hoarding?

The other terms for digital hoarding are e-hoarding, e-clutter, data hoarding, digital pack-rattery, or cyber hoarding, as mentioned in the Wikipedia article from November 2022 titled “Digital hoarding”. The concept of digital hoarding has been a frequent topic of discussion in online forums and the media, with questions surrounding its importance as an issue. However, there has been limited scientific exploration of the characteristics and potential problems associated with digital hoarding.

How common is digital hoarding?

apple screen and keyboard

Digital hoarding is very common with approximately 6.6 percent of Americans accumulating about 1,001 to 3,000 unread emails, and 1.9 percent amassing more than 20,000 unread emails, as revealed in the 2019 Healthline article by Stephanie Booth titled “How Digital Hoarding May Be Damaging Your Mental Health”. 

Drawing from the data of 1,000 surveyed Americans and their responses, roughly 50% of the participants refrain from deleting digital files due to concerns about potential future needs. This recent survey, titled “2 in 3 Americans Say Digital Files Lead To Stress or Anxiety; Americans’ cyber hoarding habits in 2022”, was conducted and published in 2022 by A. Kerai, suggesting that digital hoarding is a widespread phenomenon.

This hoarding behavior extends beyond documents; only 52% of respondents regularly delete their emails. Moreover, a noteworthy statistic is that over 1 in 6 Americans have over 100 items cluttering their desktops. 

As Nick Neave, a professor of psychology at Northumbria University pointed out, nearly everyone engages in digital hoarding to some extent, and this is considered normal behavior.

According to the 2017 SUMMIT survey results, the belief that digital hoarding is solely a concern among millennials is inaccurate, as it spans multiple generations. Surprisingly, the generation that emerged as the most prominent in multiple aspects of digital hoarding in the survey was the Generation X age group. Generation X individuals tended to accumulate a substantial number of saved photos, unused apps, and even dormant or disused smartphones.

In contrast, millennials were inclined to have higher capacities for external and cloud-based storage, as well as owning a greater number of physical hard drives. Despite millennials having more data backed up on various platforms and Generation Xers allowing photos, emails, and other data to accumulate, baby boomers excelled in bookmarking websites. On average, they had approximately 118 bookmarked websites across all their devices.

What are the types of digital hoarding?

The types of digital hoarding are listed below.

  • Inbox clutter
  • Overflowing photo gallery
  • Unused apps
  • Accidental hoarders
  • Anxious hoarders
  • Compliance hoarders
  • Organized hoarders
  • Collector hoarder

1. Inbox clutter

hands typing on a laptop

Inbox clutter or e-clutter refers to the accumulation of numerous, often unnecessary, or irrelevant digital messages, emails, or notifications within a user’s email inbox or messaging platform. As a result, the inbox becomes disorganized, making it challenging to manage and prioritize essential communications effectively.

In the 2019 research by N. Neave et al., titled “Digital hoarding behaviours: Measurement and evaluation”, the experts conducted two studies and found that digital hoarding was common and those individuals at the extreme of the digital accumulating scale reported retaining thousands of emails in inboxes and archived folders.

E-clutter bears high costs, both in psychological and financial terms, claimed Egan Marsha in the Bloomberg Businessweek article titled “E-Hoarding Is Unhealthy”. The researcher added up some numbers from a recent survey by the technology market research firm Radicati Group, stating that on average a corporate email user exchanges approximately 105 e-mail messages per day.

This influx requires substantial effort to process, categorize, and store. The time spent sorting through older messages and combing through inboxes as though in search of a precious artifact consumes valuable hours each day. Furthermore, the anxiety associated with sifting through an extensive pool of information, coupled with the stress of possibly overlooking a crucial email, can be overwhelming.

The 2019 article by Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) titled “Digital Hoarding”, claimed that inbox clutter poses a challenge not only for IT personnel responsible for hard drive and server space but also for the overall productivity of employees and the organization as a whole. Maintaining a disorganized multitude of files on a computer’s hard drive is detrimental to both the individual and the organization in general.

Therefore, decluttering can improve one’s mental health and overall well-being, improve productivity and focus, and increase feelings of accomplishment by reducing stress and anxiety.

2. Overflowing photo gallery

An overflowing photo gallery refers to a digital collection of images that has reached its maximum capacity or has become so extensive that it is difficult to manage and navigate specific images effectively. This situation typically arises when individuals or organizations continuously add pictures without organizing, deleting, or categorizing older ones.

In the 2015 study by Martine J van Bennekom et al., titled “A case of digital hoarding” published in the BMJ Case Reports, the experts presented the first case of digital hoarding, featuring a 47-year-old man with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and recurrent depressive episodes. 

The patient’s hoarding behavior encompassed both physical objects like paperwork and bike components, and digital photos. The patient used to take up to 1000 images daily, with difficulty in discarding them due to sentimental value. He stored these pictures across multiple external hard drives, believing they would be useful in the future. Organizing this vast digital collection was time-consuming and frustrating, affecting his daily life and sleep patterns. 

3. Unused apps

mobile phone screen with apps

Unused apps refer to software applications installed on a device, typically a smartphone, tablet, or computer, that remain dormant and unused by the device owner for an extended period. These apps often occupy storage space and can impact the device’s overall performance. The concept of unused apps is rooted in the idea that individuals frequently download or install various apps for specific purposes, such as productivity, entertainment, or utility, but over time, these apps become neglected and forgotten. 

The 2021 edition of the article “App Usage Statistics 2022 that’ll Surprise You (Updated)” by M. Kataria revealed that on average a person has 40 apps installed on his phone. Out of those 40 apps, more than half remain unused. 

As per the findings of a 2021 poll in the United Kingdom, which are highlighted in one of the press releases of  Three Media Centre under the name “Three reveals we are a nation of ‘digital hoarders’”, over 37% of Brits possess 10 or more unused apps, causing clutter on their mobile devices, and nationally, over one million smartphone users have more than 30 apps occupying their devices.

​​According to the 2022 article by J.Fedewa titled “​​Why You Should Get Rid of Unused Android Apps”, it is logical that not every app in one’s possession requires daily use. Some apps are designed for specific situations, and it is convenient to have them pre-installed to avoid frequent downloads. Nevertheless, it is more likely that many apps are utilized just once and then remain unused.

Unused apps occupy space without being actively used while overflowing photo galleries comprise extensive, disorganized image collections. Various apps, particularly games, vary in size and often require significant storage capacity. Even if an individual downloaded a popular game and played it just once, it remains on the device, continuing to consume storage space.

Another important consideration in this regard pertains to security. Even if the apps are no longer in active use, it is still possible that they continue to operate in the background. Apps that were previously granted access to one’s device’s location, storage, and other functionalities retain those permissions even after their primary use has concluded.

According to A. Kerai’s survey results, highlighted in “2 in 3 Americans Say Digital Files Lead To Stress or Anxiety; Americans’ Cyber Hoarding Habits in 2022”, 45% of Americans do not regularly update the apps on their phone or computer, even though these updates are usually designed for security reasons. When individuals do not clear their cache, sensitive data cluttered on one’s digital devices becomes easily accessible for hackers to exploit.

4. Accidental hoarders

Accidental hoarders, also known as disengaged or disorganized hoarders, refer to individuals who accumulate an excessive amount of digital content and files unintentionally. People in this category save unnecessary data often without a specific plan or purpose, not knowing how to organize it.

Accidental hoarders often store emails, documents, photos, and other files without a clear sorting or deletion strategy. They may unintentionally save duplicate files, forget about items stored in various folders, or hesitate to delete anything out of fear that they might need it in the future. 

This group also encompasses individuals who lack a specific rationale, emotional attachment, or anxiety concerning their stored data. For some, it is a matter of simply forgetting to remove unused data, while others fail to see the value in investing time to declutter their devices when they are functioning smoothly, as stated in the 2022 article titled “There are 4 kinds of “digital hoarder.” Which one are you?” in the Big Think.

5. Anxious hoarders

hand typing on a laptop

Anxious hoarders in a digital context can be defined as individuals who exhibit an excessive accumulation of digital files and data due to persistent feelings of unease, apprehension, or distress regarding the potential loss of important information. These individuals often struggle to delete files or emails, fearing they might need them in the future, even if the data has limited practical value. Their behavior is driven by an overwhelming sense of anxiety tied to losing access to these digital possessions.

In practice, anxious hoarders experience a constant, nagging worry about the possibility of deleting something crucial, making them hesitant to declutter or organize their digital space.

In the 2021 UCLA Health post titled “Digital hoarding – a new version of an old psychological challenge“,  Dr. Maidenberg clarifies that there is a compulsion among individuals to engage in data hoarding as a means to alleviate their anxiety. According to him, the anticipation of requiring something in the future and not being able to access it is the driving force behind this continued hoarding. Failing to accumulate some data leaves such individuals feeling anxious and insecure about the potential unavailability of important data.

Anxious hoarders fear losing essential information, while compliance hoarders strictly preserve data to meet legal requirements.

6. Compliance hoarders

Compliance hoarders are individuals who compulsively retain vast quantities of digital records, documents, or data to ensure strict adherence to regulatory and legal requirements. These hoarders typically operate within industries or organizations where compliance with data retention laws and industry-specific regulations is paramount, such as healthcare, finance, or legal sectors. 

The 2020 study by K. McKellar et al., titled “There Is More Than One Type of Hoarder: Collecting, Managing and Hoarding Digital Data in the Workplace”, published in Interacting with Computers journal, highlighted that compliance hoarders tend to preserve digital information received from superiors or colleagues in a well-organized or structured manner, with the primary goal of fulfilling compliance obligations. 

In instances where compliance underpins this hoarding behavior, the participants do not ascribe personal value to the digital data they amass. They consider the data as company property rather than their personal information. These individuals maintain this extensive data repository in anticipation of potential company audits, viewing it as proof of their dedication to their work and adherence to rules. Once the data no longer serves a purpose, these individuals willingly delete it. They believe that maintaining this digital data is vital for compliance, which alleviates any anxiety or apprehension about data volume. 

7. Organized hoarders

Organized or rational hoarders are individuals who compulsively accumulate and preserve vast quantities of digital files and data, yet they do so in an organized and structured manner. While accidental hoarders accumulate unintentionally without clear sorting strategies, organized hoarders meticulously maintain and structure their data archives. 

According to a recent article by J.Odley ”Digital Hoarding: The Modern Day Clutter You Need to Address”, organized hoarders possess extensive collections of well-organized data stored in dedicated folders or files. Their data repositories are not only well-maintained but also carefully curated, with specific and meaningful reasons for retaining each item. This category of hoarder exhibits precise control over their data archive, enabling them to effortlessly retrieve emails or photos dating back several years with just a simple click. 

The unique characteristic of these individuals lies in their methodical approach to collecting and managing digital content. Organized hoarders meticulously categorize, label, and maintain their digital files with a high degree of precision. They often have intricate folder systems, use extensive tagging, and employ comprehensive metadata to keep their digital collections well-organized.

Despite their structured approach, organized hoarders, like any hoarding subtype, may face negative consequences related to digital clutter and potential cybersecurity risks if their extensive collections are not managed carefully.

8. Collector hoarder

guy typing on a computer

Collector hoarders are individuals who have a lot of digital content, but they have a dedicated and organized place in cyberspace for all of it. They are systematic about how they categorize and, most importantly, they have a reason for hanging onto all of it, claimed Clare Stouffer in her 2021 article “Are you a digital hoarder? 12 signs plus tips to declutter your data”

As per a 2020 study by K. McKellar et al., titled “There Is More Than One Type of Hoarder: Collecting, Managing and Hoarding Digital Data in the Workplace”, some individuals intentionally hoard substantial volumes of digital data, and collecting is the driving force behind their behavior. Collector hoarders firmly believe that numerous files, regardless of their age, hold the potential to be valuable and needed in the future. 

In McKellar’s study, this category of hoarders had meticulously labeled files and were well aware of what they had stored and how to access them. If storage limitations were imposed in their workplace, they bypassed these restrictions by using external hard drives or cloud storage.

For those whose motivation was primarily centered around collecting, there were minimal concerns about the volume of digital data being stored, and this stored information became an integral part of their identity. They took pride in having this extensive digital data collection and were pleased that their colleagues recognized their ability to provide information from their stored files. Consequently, they were often sought after for assistance in accessing specific data.

The deliberate choice to retain all of their data gave participants who scored high on the Digital Hoarding Questionnaire (DHQ) a strong sense of ownership over their emails and digital files. They expressed a desire to take their emails and digital files with them if they were to leave their current job, demonstrating a profound attachment to their digital possessions. While some participants had long felt this sense of ownership, for others, it was a novel realization, almost surprising in nature.

What are the causes of digital hoarding?

The causes of digital hoarding are listed below.

  • Fear of loss: Some individuals fear losing important information or memories, so they save everything they come across digitally, from emails and photos to documents.
  • Accessibility and overload of information: The easy accessibility and swift dissemination of open content on the internet facilitate the rapid accumulation of digital media by users more than ever before.
  • Data storage capacity: With the current availability of large and affordable data storage devices, both individuals and companies often do not see the necessity of being selective about the data they save.
  • Emotional attachment: Just as people may hoard physical items, they might accumulate digital files out of sentimental attachment to photos, emails, or messages.
  • Lack of organization skills: Inability to effectively categorize, tag, or organize digital content can lead to a cluttered digital space, discouraging cleanup efforts.
  • Procrastination: Digital hoarding can be a form of procrastination, where people postpone sorting and decluttering their digital files.
  • Technological difficulties: Some people may be hesitant to delete files due to concerns about accidentally deleting something important or a lack of technical skills for managing digital content.
  • Social and professional pressure: In the age of social media, individuals may feel pressured to keep up with trends or maintain a specific digital presence, contributing to digital clutter.
  • Unlimited storage space: Since digital media does not occupy physical space, it is less likely to be perceived as clutter, and users can easily underestimate the volume of content they possess.
  • Security and privacy concerns: People may be afraid to delete information due to the worry about potential data breaches.
  • Digital collecting: Some individuals are avid collectors of digital content, such as music, movies, or e-books, and collect large libraries over time.
  • Longevity of electronic content: Unlike many physical items, electronic content does not age or deteriorate naturally, therefore it accumulates unless actively deleted.

Does digital hoarding often cause anxiety?

several computer screens

Yes, digital hoarding often causes anxiety as individuals become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data they have accumulated, making it challenging to locate important information. This anxiety is exacerbated by the fear of losing critical data, leading to the compulsive need to preserve it. 

The 2022 study “Modern-day hoarding: A model for understanding and measuring digital hoarding” led by Prof. Darshana Sedera, director of Southern Cross University’s Digital Enterprise Lab, revealed that out of 846 participants, 37% reported that their excessive digital hoarding led to feelings of anxiety. He also highlighted a clear link between the number of digital devices an individual possesses and the experience of symptoms of anxiety disorder.

What are the medical conditions that cause digital hoarding?

Mental health conditions that cause digital hoarding are depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Individuals with OCD may experience obsessive thoughts about losing important digital information, leading them to save or organize digital files to alleviate their anxiety compulsively.

In the previously mentioned study by Martine J van Bennekom titled “A case of digital hoarding” et al., a 47-year-old man diagnosed with ASD in combination with traits of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and recurrent depressive episodes was referred to an outpatient clinic due to hoarding behavior. He hoarded items of limited or no economic value, believing they would be useful in the future. Gradually his object hoarding turned into digital hoarding, when he obtained a digital camera. He started accumulating a vast number of digital pictures and struggled to discard these images because they held sentimental value. 

Martine J van Bennekom revealed that individuals with ADHD  demonstrate a higher likelihood of engaging in hoarding behaviors, and simultaneously, individuals with hoarding disorder exhibit a greater occurrence of ADHD symptoms compared to healthy individuals.

Another case exemplifying that digital hoarding is not a standalone medical condition, and it is somehow associated with these mental health conditions, is the case of a 37-year-old woman from Sydney, which is highlighted in the 2023 ABC NEWS post titled “Digital hoarding could be linked to anxiety, say some researchers, and technology may be to blame”

This woman confessed to grappling with digital hoarding, as she accumulated vast amounts of digital content, including thousands of screenshots, hundreds of unread texts, and over 17,000 unread emails. She assumed that this behavior was associated with separate diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism, making it challenging to read or delete any data from digital devices due to the fear of making a wrong choice in the future.

What are the symptoms of digital hoarding?

Common symptoms of digital hoarding are listed below.

  • Excessive digital content accumulation: Digital hoarders tend to accumulate an excessive number of files, whether it’s documents, photos, or emails, often without a clear purpose. They save anything and everything, even if most of it is unnecessary.
  • Discarding difficulty: Digital hoarders find it challenging to delete any digital content, regardless of its relevance or age. They may have emotional attachments to digital items or fear the consequences of deletion.
  • Propensity for digital clutter: Propensity for digital clutter is when an individual tends to accumulate and maintain excessive digital files and data without effectively managing or organizing them. Consequently, important files get mixed in with less important ones, making it difficult to locate what’s needed.
  • Ineffective time management: Digital hoarders may find themselves dedicating an inordinate amount of time to managing their digital clutter, leading to reduced efficiency and potential neglect of other important responsibilities.
  • Social and occupational impairments: Neglecting social, work, or personal responsibilities is somehow caused by ineffective time management. Time spent on digital hoarding activities can interfere with one’s ability to meet obligations and deadlines.
  • Anxiety and distress: Attempting to delete or organize digital files can cause significant anxiety and distress for digital hoarders. The thought of losing something important or making a wrong decision about deletion can be distressing.
  • Isolation: Digital hoarders may avoid sharing or collaborating on digital content, fearing that others might delete or change files. This can lead to isolation and hinder collaboration.
  • Difficulty finding information: The sheer volume of digital clutter can make it challenging to locate important files when needed. This can lead to frustration and time wasted searching for information.
  • Defensiveness: Digital hoarders may become defensive of their digital possessions, often seeing them as an extension of themselves. They resist any attempts to clean or organize their digital space.

When do digital hoarding symptoms usually occur?

two computer screens in the dark

Digital hoarding symptoms usually occur when individuals have a high degree of digital engagement and when their reliance on technology leads to the accumulation of extensive digital content, making it challenging for them to effectively manage, organize, or delete digital files. These symptoms can become more evident during significant life transitions, job changes, or emotional triggers, which create a need for efficient digital content management.

In the 2020 study titled “An Exploration of Digital Hoarding Behavior: I don’t know how to explain it, but I definitely do lots of it!” Alexandra C. Zidariu and Georgiana S. Dobre claimed that hoarding behavior often arises involuntarily as a result of participants’ routine job responsibilities, and a significant portion of the data clutter can be attributed to organizational practices that encourage such behavior. This inclination to hoard data may stem from the perception that data equates to knowledge, and organizations fear losing valuable insights if they discard information rather than storing it over extended periods.

Technological upgrades, software changes, and the increasing adoption of digital technology by individuals can also influence the emergence of digital hoarding behaviors. In their 2018 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, titled “Digital Hoarding Behaviors: Underlying Motivations and Potential Negative Consequences,G.Sweeten and colleagues found that endless digital storage spaces are the reason people ignore data accumulation, and this gives them no reason to even consider deleting any piece of information.

What are the effects of digital hoarding?

The effects of digital hoarding are listed below.

  • Reduced productivity: The time and effort spent managing and searching through digital clutter can significantly reduce productivity. This can affect work performance and personal tasks.
  • Increased stress and anxiety: The overwhelming digital clutter and disorganization can lead to heightened stress and anxiety as individuals struggle to find important files or manage their digital possessions.
  • Sleep disturbances: Stress and anxiety related to digital hoarding can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. This can have a cascading effect on overall health and well-being.
  • Cognitive overload: Constant exposure to a cluttered digital environment can lead to cognitive overload, making it difficult to focus, make decisions, and manage daily tasks effectively.
  • Physical health issues: The sedentary nature of spending excessive time on digital devices, combined with the stress and anxiety associated with digital hoarding, can contribute to physical health issues like back pain, eye strain, and poor posture.
  • Privacy and security risks: Keeping sensitive or outdated information on devices can expose individuals to privacy and security risks, such as data breaches or identity theft.
  • Difficulty collaborating: Excessive digital clutter can make it challenging to collaborate with others, as sharing, organizing, and accessing shared digital resources become more complex.
  • Isolation: Digital hoarding may lead to social isolation, as individuals may avoid sharing digital content due to fear of losing control over their files or discomfort with others seeing their cluttered digital environment.

How does digital hoarding affect the brain? 

Digital hoarding can affect the brain by impairing decision-making processes. As individuals struggle with the overwhelming number of digital files and data, they may face difficulty in making choices about what to keep, what to discard, and how to organize their digital possessions.

This constant decision-making challenge can lead to decision fatigue, a state where one’s ability to make rational decisions becomes compromised. This cognitive burden not only adds stress but can also hinder one’s ability to prioritize and allocate mental resources effectively in other areas of life. Additionally, the disorganization resulting from digital hoarding can make it harder for the brain to locate specific information, leading to frustration and mental fatigue when attempting to retrieve vital data.

In essence, digital hoarding can burden the brain with ongoing, complex decision-making processes and hinder efficient cognitive functioning, potentially affecting overall mental clarity and well-being.

How does digital hoarding affect mental health?

Digital hoarding affects mental health by creating a pervasive and chronic sense of disorganization and chaos in one’s digital life. This disarray can lead to a constant undercurrent of stress and anxiety, contributing to a general feeling of unease.

As individuals grow more emotionally connected to their digital belongings, the anxiety related to the potential loss or the stress of organizing them can intensify feelings of anxiety and depression, which are often associated with various forms of mental illness. Over time, these cumulative effects can take a toll on mental health, impacting emotional well-being and overall quality of life.

Jo Ann Oravec, a Ph.D. professor of information technology and business education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, claimed that digital hoarding can significantly affect mental health, exemplifying this with an example involving her students in the 2019 Healthline article titled “How Digital Hoarding May Be Damaging Your Mental Health”. She pointed out that both undergraduate and graduate students often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of digital clutter in their lives and struggle to research writing assignments.

They end up accumulating excessive printed materials, further adding to the clutter. This digital hoarding can lead to persistent difficulties in staying organized and finding essential information, leading to ongoing frustration and potentially contributing to a sense of anxiety and reduced mental well-being.

How is digital hoarding diagnosed?

person drawing on a digital ipad

Diagnosing digital hoarding remains challenging because it lacks the visible aspects of physical hoarding, as claimed by A. C. Zidariu and G. S. Dobre in the 2020 study “An Exploration of Digital Hoarding Behavior: I don’t know how to explain it, but I definitely do lots of it!”. Existing research in this field suggests that the same factors affecting physical hoarding should be taken into account when attempting to identify digital hoarding. 

The criteria for diagnosing physical hoarding disorder include persistent difficulty discarding possessions regardless of their value, distress associated with the thought of getting rid of items, and accumulation that congests living areas and compromises their use. The same applies to digital hoarding although within a digital context.

One hallmark of diagnosing various hoarding behaviors is assessing the extent of functional impairment. Difficulties locating important files, or significant time spent managing or avoiding digital clutter can significantly impact an individual’s productivity and overall digital well-being.

Emotional reactions also play a significant role in digital hoarding diagnosis. If an individual exhibits intense anxiety, sadness, or other negative emotions at the thought of deleting files or organizing their digital space, it might indicate a problematic attachment to digital possessions.

While the above criteria and evidence points offer a framework to understand and potentially diagnose digital hoarding, it’s essential to note that thorough evaluation by a mental health professional is crucial for a definitive diagnosis.

What are the treatments for digital hoarding?

Treating digital hoarding involves a combination of therapeutic approaches and self-help strategies. Common treatments for digital hoarding are listed below.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: In their 2015 study titled “A case of digital hoarding”,  published in the BMJ Case Reports, Martine J van Bennekom et al. recommended behavioral therapy as a treatment for digital hoarding. This therapy focuses on diverting attention through alternative activities, enhancing social skills, and improving sleep patterns. Therapists help individuals identify and change unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors related to hoarding.
  • Mindfulness and self-compassion: These techniques can help individuals manage anxiety and stress associated with digital hoarding. Learning to be present at the moment and practicing self-compassion can be valuable in reducing the emotional attachment to digital possessions.
  • Motivational interviewing: Therapists can employ this approach to help individuals explore and strengthen their motivation to change digital hoarding behaviors. It encourages self-reflection and goal-setting.
  • Self-help resources: Martine J. van Bennekom and his colleagues claimed that technology firms have addressed digital hoarding by offering software and resources designed to help users sort and store computer data. There are many self-help books, websites, and apps that offer guidance, tools, and online therapy for managing digital hoarding behavior.
  • Medication: In severe cases, medication for anxiety or depression may be considered if these conditions are co-occurring with digital hoarding. Medication can be prescribed by a psychiatrist in conjunction with therapy.

Is cognitive therapy (CT) commonly used to treat digital hoarding?

Cognitive therapy, also known as cognitive-behavioral therapy and talk therapy, is a widely recognized and effective approach for treating hoarding behaviors, including digital hoarding.

Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying and modifying unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to hoarding tendencies. It helps individuals change their attitudes toward possessions, manage anxiety related to discarding items, and develop practical organizational skills. 

Certain studies mentioned in one of the 2020 articles of the American Psychological Association, titled “Treating people with hoarding disorder”, suggested that while CBT can be an effective and valuable therapeutic approach for addressing hoarding symptoms, however it might require a combination of tailored interventions and ongoing support to achieve more substantial and lasting improvements.

The strategies and findings related to treating hoarding disorder through CBT can be correlated with potential methods for treating digital hoarding. Applying the principles of CBT, especially tailored interventions that focus on cognitive restructuring to alter beliefs about digital possessions, skill training for organizing and discarding digital content, as well as motivational techniques to sustain behavioral change, could be helpful in addressing digital hoarding behavior.

How to prevent digital hoarding?

computer screen

To prevent digital hoarding, one should adopt a proactive approach to managing digital content, including reviewing and organizing digital files, removing duplicates, and categorizing items to make them more accessible. 

By proactively managing digital life, one can prevent digital hoarding and maintain a clutter-free digital environment. To do so, one should develop a clear system for naming and structuring digital files for easily finding them. Setting clear boundaries for digital acquisitions, such as emails, documents, or media files, to avoid unnecessary accumulation will also prevent digital hoarding. Implementing a regular digital decluttering routine to review and delete items that are no longer useful is also advisable.

Furthermore, seeking professional help or using self-help resources to address any underlying emotional attachments to digital possessions and learning effective digital organization strategies should lead to a more productive and organized system for the whole team and less stress for an individual.

What are the risk factors for digital hoarding?

The potential risk factors for digital hoarding are traditional hoarding behaviors, anxiety and depressive disorders, technology advancements and unlimited storage, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, past traumatic experiences, and environmental factors.

Individuals with a history of traditional hoarding might find their behaviors mirrored in the digital realm, given the shared psychological underpinnings. This propensity to accumulate can be exacerbated by anxiety and depressive disorders. Anxiety, with its forward-looking fears, might render individuals apprehensive about erasing files, dreading future regrets. Conversely, depressive disorders might lead to a passive accumulation, stemming from a lack of motivation to declutter one’s digital environment.

Technology advancements and the availability of unlimited digital storage often lead to digital hoarding by encouraging individuals to accumulate vast amounts of digital data without much consideration for the consequences. Odom W. et al. in the 2014 study titled “Designing for slowness, anticipation and re-visitation: a long term field study of the photobox” observed the behaviors of individuals around digital photos.

When participants were presented with a slower technology like the Photobox, which occasionally printed only one photo, they collected fewer photos but engaged with them more actively. This study highlights the significance of tools or interfaces that promote active engagement with digital content, rather than passive accumulation. In contrast, modern cloud storage, with its continually expanding capacities, often encourages people to save more, making digital hoarding easier and potentially more problematic.

Another risk factor for developing digital hoarding is obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which drive individuals to repeatedly save or check files due to an overarching fear of potential loss. Past traumas, particularly those rooted in experiences of loss, may further intensify digital hoarding as individuals seek a semblance of control and security through the retention of digital memories.

What is the difference between digital hoarding and physical hoarding?

The differences between digital hoarding and physical hoarding are listed below.

  • Nature of possessions: Digital hoarding involves accumulating a vast number of digital files, such as documents, emails, photos, and videos, often stored on electronic devices or in the cloud. In contrast, physical hoarding entails accumulating tangible items, like newspapers, clothing, household goods, or even trash, cluttering physical living spaces.
  • Storage mode: Digital hoarding occurs in the virtual realm, using electronic devices or online storage platforms, while physical hoarding involves the accumulation of physical items, cluttering homes, offices, or storage spaces.
  • Consequences of hoarding: Consequences of digital hoarding may include digital disorganization, reduced device performance, and difficulties in finding and accessing information. Physical hoarding can lead to unlivable or unsanitary conditions, social isolation, and safety hazards.
  • Treatment approaches: For digital hoarding, interventions commonly revolve around digital decluttering strategies, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and self-help techniques, all designed to address the challenges of managing digital possessions. In contrast, when dealing with physical hoarding, the treatment typically involves therapeutic interventions, the assistance of professional organizers, and concerted cleanup efforts aimed at reclaiming and restoring physical living spaces.
  • Visibility: Digital hoarding is not immediately visible to others, as it occurs in the digital realm, while physical hoarding is highly visible, as it clutters physical living spaces.
  • Regulatory implications: Digital hoarding may have legal and privacy implications related to data protection and compliance with data retention regulations. On the other hand, physical hoarding can lead to legal consequences related to housing code violations and health hazards.