At last count, Melissa Schluer had nearly 111,000 unread emails. She knew she was never going to make a dent in the pile—but she also couldn’t bring herself to delete them.
Schluer, a dental hygienist, is a self-confessed digital hoarder. And she’s not alone. As hard drives get bigger and cloud storage gets cheaper, it’s increasingly easy to carry around years, even decades, worth of digital debris. We hang onto unimportant emails, texts with our exes, obsolete Word documents, and selfies we don’t even like. After all, why delete the video your kid took of a fish at the aquarium when you can transfer it to your new iPhone with 256GB of storage?
The detrimental effects of digital hoarding are less obvious than a living room stacked high with old magazines and newspapers. But when we drag our old photos and files from computer to computer and iPhone to iPhone, we can set ourselves up for bigger problems down the line.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), a person is categorized as a hoarder if they meet two conditions. First, they must hang onto items regardless of their value. Second, they must experience significant distress over the notion of parting with them.
Avoiding negative emotions is a major factor in hoarding behavior—and scientists are still trying to understand it. In 2012, Yale University School of Medicine researchers asked two groups—hoarders, and a control group—to bring a pile of un-sorted papers from home. The study participants were hooked up to an MRI machine and asked to make choices about whether or not to discard the items, then watch the disposal process.
When the scientists compared brain scans of the hoarders to that of the control group, they found that the hoarders had significantly more activity associated with “generating appropriate emotional response” and “regulating affective state during decision making” throughout the experience. In other words, deciding whether to keep or cast off items was a more emotional experience for hoarders than for their non-hoarder peers.
Under this understanding, an inbox full of emails you haven’t deleted because you don’t have time to sift through all the spam isn’t hoarding. It’s just the universal plight of the overwhelmed.
But an inbox full of emails you won’t delete because you may need them later on, or because it makes you upset to imagine being caught off-guard? That could be a sign of hoarding, according to Dr. Michael Moore, assistant professor in the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University.
“There’s a fear of some kind of negative emotion, being caught unprepared,” Moore explains. “They’re going to feel sad if they get rid of an email, so they don’t do it.”
That’s the case with Schluer, who admits she’s putting off the inevitable. After her mother’s death in 2011, she found herself unable to search for common words like “Home Depot” and wipe what are likely spam emails from her inbox.
“I think in the back of my mind ‘What if my mom wrote me a letter that had Home Depot in it and I love you,’” she says. “People don’t get it. They actually really don’t have a clue how important those emails might be to me someday. I need to keep them. But as I say that, I think or wish the server would catch on fire somewhere and be done with it.”
Of course, many of us want to use technology to preserve memories of our loved ones. When Megan Sayers Chapham upgrades her phone, the first thing the Babble.com senior editor does is check to make sure that a 25th birthday message from her late mom has made the transfer. She’s backed it up to her hard drive, transferred it to voice memos, even attached it to emails to ensure she won’t lose her mom’s voice saying “I love you.”
“It’s one of the most precious things I have,” she explains. “I listen to it every year on my birthday, and I’ve backed it up basically to the moon and back.”
The problems only arise when all the old photos, emails and voice messages pile up. If you find yourself unable to sort through your digital archives—not because you actively treasure their contents, but because you’re distressed by the mere possibility of losing something you might want to hang onto—Moore says that it’s time to reflect.
Beyond the psychological risks, there are other reasons to confront one’s digital hoarding habit. I experienced the drawbacks firsthand when a massive hack of Yahoo’s email program exposed sensitive information belonging to more than a billion Americans. The hack sent me digging through old files to find the password for an email account I hadn’t used in years. In the process, I realized that I had at least five separate ghost accounts—ones I’d created and then abandoned when I moved on to a new job or got tired of the spam.
But I realized in my search that not only did I have no idea how to get back into these old accounts, I had no idea what sort of personal information in those abandoned inboxes could put me at risk if they were exposed. That’s why cybersecurity experts warn against building a digital trove of information, no matter how cheap or easy it is to do.
“If you have old communications stored on [a compromised] account, you could be leaking sensitive information that’s still very pertinent today,” says William Budington, security engineer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “People often use email as a way to transfer files, often to themselves (from, say, one device to another). These often take the form of photographs or documents which, if they contain sensitive or embarrassing information, could be used by an attacker for the purpose of extortion.”
The same risks are associated with storing photographs, videos and old papers in the iCloud or Dropbox. No matter how secure we’d like to think these storage services are, one need only look back to the 2014 iCloud breach that exposed nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities to know anything in the cloud could potentially be hacked.
To prevent such an outcome, Budington advises backing up old files you just can’t delete to multiple hard drives stored in separate locations, protecting them from both virtual and physical theft. Of course, deleting should come first and foremost. If you don’t need it; get rid of it.
And if you’re just one of those people who’s simply overwhelmed by life and can’t keep up, know you’re not alone. Nor do you have to go full KonMari on your digital life: Just do a little dusting around the edges.
Any naughty photos hiding out in the cloud, or private communiques with your accountant about your financial future? Find those, and delete them pronto. Check your social media profiles and all the accounts out there for your cable bill, electric service and so on. Make sure they’re tied to your most recent email account, and get rid of the accounts you don’t use anymore.
When all that is done, do what I did: turn off the “unread emails” notification on your phone. Maybe you won’t get around to deleting that 25% off offer for Gap jeans any time soon. But at least you won’t be reminded every time you want to send a text.