Is your hard drive full of emails, photos, documents, or media files that you haven’t looked at in years? There’s a good chance you’re a digital hoarder.
We all know what hoarding of physical goods can become a huge problem, but research from the UK’s Northumbria University, Newcastle, suggests that digital hoarding can actually be a problem too.
Nick Neave is an associate professor in psychology and director of the university’s Hoarding Research Group.
He and his colleagues point to a 2015 study in the British Medical Journal which stated that a 47-year-old man not only hoarded physical items, but he also took 1000 digital photos every day. While the man was autistic, the compulsive nature of his actions actually caused mental harm.
So Neave and his colleagues conducted a study on digital hoarding. The concept of digital hoarding is based on the idea that digital hoarding is classed as accumulating so many digital files that a person loses perspective and instead they end up stressed out and disorganised.
They found that digital hoarding is common in the workplace, particularly amongst those who are responsible for ‘data protection’ – and emails were the most commonly hoarded items.
The 2020 study commissioned by Crest Research and undertaken by Neave and his team is titled Cybersecurity risks of digital hoarding behaviours.
They note that people often hang on to files because of their jobs, even though they are aware that digital hoarding could end up hurting them and their organisation – particularly when it comes to data protection.
They say are four types of digital hoarders:
- Collectors organise and control their data. They keep things ‘just in case’ they need them. Some may even feel a sense of pride from having so much data
- Accidental hoarders don’t even know what they have and don’t control it – it’s disengagement often driven by a lack of time, procrastination, or laziness
- Hoarders by instruction keep files and data because their workplace tells them to, though they realise that their employer’s policies can differ from other organisations
- Anxious hoarders have emotional ties to files and data and don’t want to let it go. They tend to delete only spam emails and things that aren’t relevant to them or their job.
The report acknowledges that the researchers only conducted small studies and don’t yet understand the scale of the issue, the results do hint at a growing problem in workplaces – and at home.
For workplaces, it’s particularly concerning as data protection regulations are becoming more stringent worldwide, and security threats are only growing. The more data people hoard, the more is at risk. There are also environmental concerns as useless data is stored on servers or more hard drives.
“Participants discussed the implications of having their laptop or memory stick stolen, but ironically, perceived solutions to this problem was the duplication of data, i.e. ensuring backups existed on other systems,” the study notes.
“Overall, participants saw the benefits to keeping large amounts of digital data, recognising that ‘unlimited’ storage coupled with good search facilities meant there were no downsides. If they did foresee any issue with security breaches, these were seen as generating consequences for the company rather than for themselves.”