Digital hoarding – a new version of an old psychological challenge

‘People may see their behavior as excessive or disproportionate, but they still have a hard time controlling it,’ says Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Health.

We all know people — maybe even ourselves — whose inbox contains thousands of undeleted emails or whose smartphone photo galleries strain the limits of that nebulous “cloud” we count on to save our precious moments.

Most behavioral experts would agree that’s not problematic in itself. But when digital saving crosses over into digital hoarding, the behavior can negatively affect one’s life, causing severe stress and anxiety, says Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Clinic.

Hoarding is a disorder characterized by difficulty in parting with possessions. It was once considered a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental and behavioral disorder that affects between 2% and 4% of the general population. In 2013, hoarding disorder was classified as a separate condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Digital hoarding is just “a new version of an old psychological challenge,” Dr. Maidenberg says.

“It can be possessions; it can be books. It can be papers or receipts. Anything can come into that category, and that’s been with us many years,” he says. “But with the emergence of social media, and the capacity of computer memories to store a lot of information without it being expensive, it’s a newer version of the same pattern emerging.”

Digital hoarders may collect emails, photos, articles, podcasts, or any type of computer files they believe they may want to revisit in the future, Dr. Maidenberg says. “People can hoard any of it in that way, and ultimately, in most cases, they rarely get to actually use it or listen to it or read it.”

Digital hoarding can rise to the level of being an interference with one’s life, and that’s when it becomes potentially stressful, he says.

Loss of control

Most computer users save digital files to some extent, and that’s expected, Dr. Maidenberg says. They might even bookmark things and never get back to reading or viewing them. “It’s a common experience I think most of us have and it’s not, itself, a problem at all.”

With digital hoarding, however, the act of saving the file becomes an uncontrollable urge.

“It means that they’ve lost the choice — they feel they have to save it. If they do not, they may feel uncomfortable and, more often than not, anxious that they may need to have access to the information and it’s not going to be there,” he says.

“This prediction of needing something and not having the access to it is what motivates people to continue collecting,” Dr. Maidenberg says.

Hoarding activities may include thinking about the items to be collected or saved, checking to make sure the items have been saved and re-saving, intermittently organizing the files/articles/photos or possibly rereading old communications.

Digital hoarders often will cite an emotional attachment or a sentimental value to files they collect — including photos or email exchanges — associated with their own life experiences or with people in their lives. In such cases, he says, anticipating difficulty coping with feelings that accompany a permanent loss of these items becomes a barrier to controlling their hoarding behavior.

Difficult to treat

Oftentimes, people may see their behavior as excessive or disproportionate, but they still have a hard time controlling it. Hoarding activities can lead to a temporary relief of anxiety and, at times, become associated with a general feeling of well-being and emotional equilibrium, Dr. Maidenberg says.

Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg
Digital hoarding can become stressful when it begins to interfere with one's life, says Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

“People tend to vacillate toward that activity instead of doing something else that might be stressful.”

The pandemic has been a particularly challenging time for digital hoarders, Dr. Maidenberg says, as people have spent more time at home with easy access to digital devices. He notes the disorder is more likely to affect individuals who have a physiological or genetic predisposition, often activated by stressful life events.

Seeking help

Dr. Maidenberg says the majority of patients he treats for digital hoarding are drawn to getting psychological help for other reasons.

“There’s no real motivation to change this habit for most people unless something related to it becomes really stressful,” he says. “So, in most cases, people seek help for other symptoms or, at times, family members seek help for their partners, siblings or their children. It’s a more common scenario that somebody else notices the negative impact on one’s life or interpersonal relationships and would suggest getting help.”

Although difficult, it may be possible to overcome digital hoarding on one’s own by gradually reducing the activities associated with hoarding in a consistent and systematic manner. Dr. Maidenberg recommends following these steps:

  1. Be honest with yourself and recognize the pattern and the potential impact of these activities on your life right now or in the future.
  2. Consider the potential for things you could do with the time you spend engaging in that activity and consider whether there’s enough motivation in you internally to want to change it.
  3. Have a systematic plan to do less of it gradually and consistently for a few weeks. If you notice that it becomes too difficult or you forget to control the urge,  it may be time to seek professional advice or help.

The UCLA OCD Intensive Treatment Program offers an elevated level of care for patients who have moderate to severe OCD and/or hoarding disorder. For more information, visit the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.


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