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Neuropsych

There are 4 kinds of “digital hoarder.” Which one are you?

It's time to let go of those emails from your cousin and the photos of your dinner.
digital hoarding
Credit: Nuthawut / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • If your inbox is overflowing and your smartphone's memory is always full, you might be a digital hoarder.
  • Just like in the physical world, hoarding in the digital world is often associated with anxiety or other mental health conditions.
  • A recent study identified at least four different kinds of hoarders: anxious, accidental, compliance, and organized. Which one(s) are you?

Do you have hundreds (or even thousands) of emails in your inbox that you’ll work through someday but never find the time for? Do you have too many tabs open in your browser that are too important to close, even if your device is getting slow? Is your phone’s storage always full?

You may be a digital hoarder. Several studies have shown that physical clutter has an adverse effect on our productivity and well-being. But in today’s always-online world, we also have to worry about digital clutter. 

A Simform survey found that the average person has 40 apps installed on their phone, but they use less than half of them. Another study found that three in five people never delete photos. Having thousands of unread emails is so common that it has become a meme. But is any of this healthy?

Hoarding has been associated with anxiety, and Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg, a UCLA  psychiatry professor, describes digital hoarding as “a new version of an old psychological challenge.” Similar to physical hoarding, digital hoarding may be harmful. While research on the effects of digital hoarding is still new, a 2018 paper found that digital hoarders experience increased levels of stress. Hoarding disorder is considered a mental health condition in the DSM-5, and now researchers are observing that the negative consequences of digital hoarding may be similar to those of physical hoarding.

While having too much data on your devices is linked to loss of productivity and decreased well-being, it also increases cybersecurity risks. The more data you store, the more you are vulnerable to data loss and identity theft.

Four types of digital hoarding

People hoard digital files for different reasons. A 2020 study identified four different types of digital hoarders:

Anxious hoarders. Do you bookmark hundreds of pages or save old emails “just in case” you need them in the future? You may be an anxious hoarder. 

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In a UCLA post, Dr. Maidenberg explains that people have an urge to hoard data to soothe their anxiety. “The prediction of needing something [in the future] and not having the access to it is what motivates people to continue collecting,” he said. 

“Keeping data even if its value is unclear to participants provides a level of security and comfort for participants,” the 2020 study on digital hoarding described. “Participants were also anxious to preserve information that might become important at some future point in time — deciding that the best plan was to keep everything, just in case.”

Accidental hoarders. Is your inbox always overflowing because you just don’t know how to manage it? You may be an accidental hoarder. Also called disengaged or disorganized hoarders, people in this category don’t intentionally save unnecessary data. They just don’t know how to organize it. 

“These participants had a reduced sense of ownership over the data they had stored and felt that much of it had been accumulated over time and almost accidentally,” the study said. This also includes hoarders who don’t have a specific reason, attachment, or anxiety about the data. Some of them simply forget to delete their unused data or just don’t see the point in spending precious time decluttering their devices if they’re working well.

Compliance hoarders. Are you saving all your work files because your boss says it’s important? You may be a compliance hoarder. This group likely doesn’t have any personal attachment to the data but keeps it around for company audits or just because it isn’t theirs to delete. “[K]eeping data was seen as part of doing their job,” the study said. Since they don’t have any personal ties to the files, they are open to deleting the information once their boss or manager approves it.

Organized hoarders. Do you have an intricate system of saving all the information you find interesting or useful? You may be an organized hoarder. Also called collectors, these people have “purposely stored, well-organized digital files.” Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of data, people in this category feel in control because of their organized methods. They know exactly where any file is stored.

Other hoarding motivations

Along with these motivations, digital hoarding also occurs when someone is too attached to the data even to consider getting rid of it. This can include chats and photos of an old partner, texts sent by a long-lost friend, or even meme screenshots collected several years ago. In a 2018 study, people also confessed to hoarding files to use against someone in the future. 

Everyone has their own reasons to hoard digital files, so there is no one-size-fits-all advice. However, knowing about the adverse effects of digital hoarding is an invitation to reconsider your own relationship with all those files filling up your devices.


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