Can digital hoarding impact well-being? Research says maybe

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Chances are, you or someone you know collect massive amounts of useless data; a gallery full of photos, an email inbox full of read and unread emails, or apps you have not used in months, maybe years. Yet many find these digital tokens hard to let go of.اضافة اعلان

Within the past decade, new studies on this phenomenon have been released, and research suggested that there may be negative consequences associated with this behavior, also known as digital hoarding.

Collecting vs hoarding
There is a fine line between collecting and hoarding. Collectors are organized, deliberate, and methodical in the objects they acquire. Their goal is to admire and display these objects.

However, hoarding is an actual disorder that the American Psychiatric Association defines as the persistent difficulty in getting rid of items due to a feeling of needing to save them. Any attempts to part with these items can cause significant distress, and the resulting clutter can disrupt their living spaces.

Hoarding is by no means a new disorder. Some of its earliest references can be seen as far back as the 14th century. However, hoarding disorder was not added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 2010. As our digital age has evolved, so too has the disorder. Instead of hoarding taking up physical space, there has been an increase in people now cluttering up their digital space.

What is digital hoarding?
Digital hoarding is a new term, and its exact definition can vary. The term was first seen in a 2015 case study in the scientific community. This case study described an older man who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2007 and presented to the clinic requesting treatment for his hoarding behavior. It was found that he had a hoarding disorder and mainly hoarded paperwork and bike parts, which contributed to a cluttered living space.

What was new and interesting about this case was the patient’s hoarding of digital pictures. On average, he took up to 1,000 photos per day mostly of landscapes and stored all of them on four hard drives and an additional four, which served as a backup for the original photos. The digital hoarding alone impacted his life severely to the point where he would spend, on average, three to five hours per day organizing them and the thought of getting rid of them caused distress.

He had no interest in getting rid of them because they would bring back memories for him and he felt attached to them. By the conclusion of this case study, it was determined that this patient satisfied the criteria of a hoarding disorder and argued that digital hoarding be treated as a subtype. The study defined it as an accumulation and disorganization of digital files, which causes distress and impairment in functioning.

Types of digital hoarding
Since digital hoarding is still a new concept, the exact prevalence and factors at play make it difficult to estimate its true impact.

Hoarding disorder is only thought to affect 2.6 percent of people, predominantly those over 60. However, a 2019 study suggests that digital hoarding is common and is frequently seen in business practice. A 2019 study laid the foundation for a 2020 follow-up report by the same researchers that went into further detail and outlined four distinct types of digital hoarders in the workplace.

The accidental hoarder: This type of digital hoarding seems to be the most common. Accidental hoarding, also called disengagement, comes from poor data management, a lack of control over acquired data, and accumulation over time. It is most commonly seen in email inboxes.

It is mostly characterized by a lack of interest in structuring or organizing data upon receiving it. And many individuals feel that it is too late to start organizing. This results in a cycle where data does not get deleted out of laziness or lack of time and further accumulates and perpetuates the lack of organization.

This type of hoarding is not particularly problematic and not indicative of a true hoarding disorder since the data is not valuable to them, nor does it cause them distress when deleting it.

The hoarder by instruction: This type of digital hoarding is most commonly seen in business environments. Data is stored in mass per a company’s request to be used at a later date potentially. However, the clear distinction is that the data is well organized, and the user knows the stored data. Individuals are also usually relieved or happy when they can finally delete the data and feel no distress.

The anxious hoarder: The anxious hoarder conveys a more concerning form of digital hoarding and may border on a hoarding disorder. Individuals who fall under this type may hoard data similar to hoarders by instruction, but the primary motivation is different. In anxious hoarders, there is a belief that the data may become important one day, and the idea of deleting files can cause anxiety. One distinguishing component of anxious hoarding is that even if the individual recognized the file no longer had value, they would keep it just in case.

The collector: This is a relatively unique type of digital hoarder but still incorporates other aspects of different kinds. Much like hoarders by instruction, a collector intentionally and knowingly collects data in an organized and systematic manner.

Like anxious hoarders, they also believe it may be important one day. However, what is unique is their motivation behind hoarding. Anxious hoarders can recognize that certain data is no longer valuable, however, collectors find all of their data valuable subjectively and gain a sense of pride or identity from it.

Negative consequences of digital hoarding
Since digital hoarding is a relatively new concept, there is little information on its effects on mental health. With hoarding disorders, some of the greatest concern is loss of living space, financial difficulties, and health hazards relating to a disorganized environment.

With digital hoarding, most of these concerns are not present since all the stored data is placed on small hard drives and is relatively cheap in comparison. Although digital hoarding may not be directly responsible for a negative impact on mental health, it may be indicative of it.

Hoarding behavior is compulsive in nature and associated with other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Depending on the type, this can be further worsened, such as anxious hoarders who may become distressed if forced to delete data. Even on a functional level, having massive amounts of unorganized data can trickle down into your lifestyle. It may set the precedence of disorder which could potentially impact work and the household.

If you are concerned
More likely than not, the average individual has massive amounts of data that isn’t valuable but would not consider themselves a hoarder. This often falls under the category of accidental hoarding. If this is the case, taking the time to implement an organizational method could be beneficial. This can be done by creating folders and labeling things according to importance.

Another tip to keep in mind is not allowing things to sit in undesignated areas such as a downloads folder, inbox, or desktop. Therapy might be beneficial for those who feel that their hoarding affects their mental health, such as anxious hoarders. In the mentioned above 2015 case study, the gentleman was able to seek cognitive-behavior therapy, which helped significantly reduce the amount of digital hoarding and improve his quality of life.

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