How Endless Data Storage Can Be a Problem

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As data storage has become more accessible than ever, the amount of digital “stuff” we’ve all stashed away is also on the rise – for many of us, it’s getting harder and harder to handle by the day. .

In a recent article published in the journal Information and Management, we investigated a growing phenomenon called “digital hoarding” – the need to acquire and retain digital content without a specific purpose.

The way we interact with digital content through readily available smartphones, social media and messaging apps only exacerbates the behavior. Social media platforms especially encourage us to hoard, as our emotions become entangled with the digital content we share with others, such as photos with lots of shares or likes.

While it can take up to 25 or more selfies before seeing a “winner”, the sheer volume of content creation raises an important question: how do we plan to handle this jumble of data?

Bringing clutter into the digital age

Hoarding is defined as persistent difficulty getting rid of possessions and can either be a disorder in itself or a symptom of another mental health problem such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of objects. They end up with an excessive accumulation of things in their house, regardless of their real value.

We propose that digital hoarding occurs when an individual constantly acquires digital content, finds it difficult to get rid of it, and accumulates digital content without a clear purpose.

Digital hoarding can also quickly spiral out of control – perhaps even faster than in the physical world, for several reasons.

First, the digital hoarder is less likely to notice space limitations in the digital world. While the boundaries of a physical space are clear, those boundaries are less important in digital spaces. Second, hoarding of physical objects occurs within fixed limits, while digital spaces are “expandable” – you can get additional digital storage with minimal effort at very little or no cost.

Third, to hoard physical objects, a person must exert effort, such as buying them. In contrast, most digital content is either self-created, free, or available by subscription. Fourth, compared to physical contents, digital contents can be multiplied (for example, by making copies) with very minimal effort.

All in all, having different formats of digital content, an endless capacity to expand storage, increase emotional attachment, and the lack of a sophisticated retrieval system can all make an individual nervous to the idea of ​​deleting this digital content – showing potential signs of digital hoarding.


Suggested Reading: Why We Need to View Social Media Use as a Dissociation, Not an Addiction


Define digital hoarding

We define digital hoarding based on these three criteria: constant acquisition of digital content, difficulty of rejection, and propensity for digital content clutter.

Constant Acquisition refers to the constant collection of digital content, with little regard to its value, purpose, or usefulness. With most communication taking place electronically, we tend to keep all digital content indiscriminately – just in case! This includes emails, images, videos, invoices and receipts.

In our research sample, some people had amassed over 40 terabytes (TB) of digital content over time. Acquisition refers not only to the photos you have on storage devices, for example, but also those uploaded to social networks.

Difficulty throwing away digital content is the second feature of digital hoarding. Think of the last time you meticulously deleted old emails, for example. Theoretically, an individual with compulsive hoarding disorder tends to place a high value on the content they possess and, as a result, they have great difficulty getting rid of it.

Propensity to clutter is the third feature of digital hoarding. It refers to the way abundant, often unrelated digital content is stored in a disorderly fashion.

Since most digital content can be stored on any digital device, people tend to save such content without much organization and think they can sort it later. This often leads to a feeling of being disorganized and cluttered in digital spaces.

What can you do to curb digital hoarding?

In our survey of 846 respondents representing the general population, we found that digital hoarding can lead to higher levels of anxiety. Statistically, 37% of a person’s total level of anxiety, measured using an established depression, anxiety and stress scale, was explained by digital hoarding.

Our research also showed that women are 27% more likely to experience the negative effects of digital hoarding than their male counterparts.

Not surprisingly, the number of data storage devices a person owns has compounded the impact of digital hoarding. For example, if someone has multiple hard drives or cloud storage, the impacts of digital hoarding can increase.

In the modern world, it is inevitable that digital content will play an important role in our lives. Therefore, the potential for serious mental health impacts from digital hoarding is a real possibility.

If you think you’re keeping too much digital content, here are some tips:

  • consider doing a “spring cleaning” every year and schedule a time to clean up your digital footprint in the spring
  • reduce unnecessary digital content
  • invent simple mechanisms to organize your files, emails, photos and videos
  • re-evaluate the importance of many social networks, including groups in many communication applications, and retain only those that are essential to you.

However, if you find these issues particularly difficult or confronting, consider talking to your doctor or a mental health specialist.

Darshana Sedera, Associate Dean (Research), Southern Cross University and Sachithra Lokuge, Lecturer, Information Systems, University of Southern Queensland first published this article on The Conversation.

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