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Digital hoarding – meet the women who can’t let go of old texts and pictures

Written by Lola Christina Alao

Digital hoarding has been described as a subtype of hoarding disorder. We explore the psychology behind our collective urge to hold onto excessive amounts of digital clutter such as text conversations, photos and files.

After I broke up with a guy I was dating a few years back, I deleted our conversation history with so much speed. It seemed weird to keep our conversations taking up precious space. Space that should be reserved for pretty photos of the sky or my favourite apps like Asos and Twitter.

“How did the conversation go again?” my friend asked a few weeks later. “Ah, I can barely remember to be honest.” I brushed it off – partly because I wanted to completely shut it out, and partly because the conversation was hazy because I’d deleted it.

I wished I could also delete him from my memory entirely. I wanted to swipe left on him but I couldn’t. He was more than some pixels on a screen, he was an actual memory living stubbornly in my mind. Truthfully, deleting our iMessage history didn’t mean I was miraculously over him, but getting over him was a bit easier because I had nothing to trigger those memories. 

But Antoinette, 25, took a completely different approach. “I don’t think I could ever delete the WhatsApp chat with my ex-boyfriend. It’s interesting looking back at the start of the relationship so many years ago and who I was then versus now, and I can see how the relationship changed,” she tells me.

“I saw that things weren’t as healthy as I thought they were and now that I’m out and looking at it with different eyes, it’s sort of undoing gaslighting that I did to myself.” 

Antoinette is a self proclaimed “digital hoarder”. Digital hoarding is described as when we hold onto excessive amounts of digital clutter such as text conversations, photos and files. The term was first used back in 2015 to describe a man who took several thousand digital photos each day. He never used or looked at the photos he had saved, but convinced himself that he’d need them in future. 

Antoinette has two external drives and recently upgraded her iCloud storage, but her desire to take photos of everything is rooted in trauma. “I don’t have a great long-term memory due to trauma so having media that helps me remember events is a comfort during difficult times,” she tells me. “I’m pretty nostalgic but not being able to rely on my memory means I need to keep digital stuff. It’s so easy now to quickly take photos in the moment, and then it’s too hard to know what to delete afterwards, so I generally just increase storage.”

“A close friend of mine took her own life last year, so being able to see photos of us together and my old Snapchat stories from our friendship helps when I miss her,” Antoinette says.

Precious, 28, has a slightly different reason for holding onto digital mementos. She very rarely deletes text or WhatsApp messages and describes herself as a digital “receipts babe”, using conversations as “receipts” to make sure people don’t lie or go back on their word. I ask her if she thinks this is healthy, and if holding onto these conversations has ever prevented her from getting over an ex or a hurtful situation. “Oh no, never,” she responds. I don’t go back and re-read them, they’re just there in archives. I don’t think about any of the messages either so although I know they exist, I forget I have them to be honest.”

She has also kept screenshots from “sweet birthday messages” that go as far back as a decade ago but admits that she probably won’t look at them again.

In the digital age, we get the urge to hold onto things “just in case” because they are “nice to have”, but so many of our digital keepsakes quickly become obsolete. 

Digital hoarding has even been described as a subtype of hoarding disorder. In one study, a group of 45 adults showed clear signs of stress and anxiety triggered by the runaway accumulation of emails, photos, work files and more. 

For Lauren, 28, who has 58,000 photos in her camera roll, these feelings are familiar. “My camera roll is largely taken up by throwaway selfies, memories that should be offloaded onto storage devices, memes and screenshots I never get around to deleting,” she tells me. “I’ve been meaning to delete the screenshots but I always get a bit overwhelmed when I go into that folder, so there they remain.”

And, digital hoarding can come at a price. If you have an iPhone, you could be paying up to £6.99 more a month to have extra space on your phone (that’s for 2TB of storage). If you’re setting out to buy a whole new iPhone altogether, prices jump up by £100 the more capacity you require (an iPhone 12 Pro Max 128GB costs £1,099, while the 256GB version costs £1,199).

So at what point does it become unhealthy for us to hold onto this much digital data? Şirin Atçeken, psychologist and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) specialist at WeCure believes that digital data is as bad for our mental health as physical hoarding. “Like a home, we carry our lives on our phone, and storing photos, messages, videos or other types of data that we no longer need can leave us feeling anxious, overwhelmed and can also prevent us from moving on from certain situations,” she explains. 

It becomes unhealthy when we start to feel bad about getting rid of data, and feel anxious about it, or when we start to feel negatively about ourselves. For example, when we look at old photos where we think we looked better or led better lives. The only purpose they often serve is to make us feel bad and stop us appreciating the present, Şirin adds.

When it comes to holding onto digital photos of someone who’s passed away, Şirin would recommend doing something productive with them. “Put them in an album on Facebook, or make an online scrapbook that you can refer to when you want to. And then delete them from your phone. That way, they aren’t catching you unaware as you scroll through your data,” she explains. “And if it’s from an ex partner, or someone you are no longer in contact with, it’s important to know when it’s time to let go. For many of us, our phones are our lives, and once you have gotten them out of your physical one, it’s time to remove them from your virtual life.” 

Dr. Daria J. Kuss, the course leader of cyberpsychology at Nottingham Trent University, says keeping old digital keepsakes is normal, and that holding onto messages from loved ones who have died coincides with our need to memorialise both them as well as the relationship you had with them.

“Humans are social creatures and delving into nostalgia surrounding situations we have shared may increase our wellbeing by harnessing our need for belonging.” She does, however, agree that it “may become problematic if digital keepsakes lead to excessive rumination, which itself has been associated with an increased risk for developing depression symptoms.”

But is it too early to diagnose digital hoarding as an official disorder? Digital and physical hoarding may often be put under the same umbrella, but they do have quite distinct differences. 

Şirin explains that we are only recently realising the effects of physical hoarding on mental health, so it will take time to deepen our understanding. “It’s something that is still very much referred to from a business or corporate perspective of document and data hoarding. It’s not something that is too common in a more mainstream setting. It’s more considered an issue from a mental health standpoint, so a symptom rather than a cause, and it’s the anxiety and or depression that is addressed rather than the digital hoarding aspects. It definitely needs more research, and I think as we move more and more online, it will eventually be taken more seriously as a disorder.”

Our lives are becoming increasingly digitised and we are amassing mountains of save-for-later screenshots, photos of our dinner from seven years ago, and even hurtful conversations from exes we dated in the past. It’s important we stay mindful of the digital stuff we’re holding onto, and recognise when it’s weighing us down. 

Images: Getty/Marta Shershen

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