Articles/Digital Hoarder Syndrome

Digital Hoarder Syndrome

It is imperative from the outset that the people involved in this article are protected. They live in fear of being exposed. Petrified that the people they trust and value most will find out their dark secret and things will never be the same again. 

In reality, you already know someone with DHS. You might be sat next to one now, and anecdotal evidence suggests that one in six will be affected in their lifetime. These people look like you or me, but they carry tremendous digital weight with them. A load generated by hundreds of unread emails and text, countless downloaded apps never used, and thousands of photos unedited and mostly out of focus. 

I am, of course, talking about the explosive increase of Digital Hoarder Syndrome.

Trapped in your digital storage

It is safe to assume that most are aware of traditional hoarding. What starts as an interest in collecting stuff, ends in a house that can only be negotiated by swimming through its contents. The unfortunate resident trapped, both physically and mentally, by the inability to throw away even the most inconsequential item.

For a sufferer of DHS, the symptoms are very similar, and with an ever-increasing number of digital devices on offer twinned with a decrease in the cost of digital storage, cases of DHS have skyrocketed.

Now by this stage, you are probably starting to worry that you might be one of them, and you might be right to worry. With very little known about its causes and the medical profession still not taking the syndrome seriously, things are getting serious. 

Are you suffering from DHS?

Luckily, DHS is straightforward to diagnose. Let us start with a simple test. Start by unlocking your phone and look at your home screen. If you are greeted by an organised set of apps, sorted neatly into folders and with less then ten notification icons in total then breath easy, you are going to be ok.

If on the other hand, your home screen is one of the multiple screens littered with apps and your unread items are in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, you should immediately seek help.

DHS is as polarising as it is controversial. There are many sufferers so blinded by the highs experienced when downloading a new app or leaving an email ‘unread’, that any suggestion there is a problem is met with denial or anger. 

In some extreme cases, a sufferer might suggest that an insistence on a consistent filing system across all devices and a rule never going to bed before each and every notification is acted upon is as much of a problem as DHS. This is obviously mental and further demonstrates quite how serious DHS is.

As a normal folder-using, email-filing, photo-deleting man, finding someone willing to talk openly was going to be challenging. Fortuitously I was on a flight to San Francisco when one such unfortunate creature sat next to me on the plane. Having left her phone on the table near mine, I immediately noticed the tale-tale signs, splashed across her home screen.

21 unread texts, 7,789 unread emails, 185 unanswered voicemails and, perhaps most worrying of all, 147 apps requiring some sort of update. My heart was pounding as I began to consider the number of apps she was running with less than full functionality. I quickly took some deep breaths. Then it hit me, like a tonne of bricks. There was every chance she would be running an out of date operating system, I quickly took some deep breaths, before checking my phone for any new emails, texts or updates. The only thing was an email from Wired, I made a snap decision to delete it, and my heart rate returned to normal.

Time to get to work

Something had to be done, so I struck up some conversation under the guise of being interested in what she did for work. Jessie Sarahson (not her real name) is Head of Consumer Engagement and small talk over, I asked her about DHS. 

Like many sufferers, not only was Jessie unaware of the syndrome, she also felt strongly that she didn’t want to give, a stranger on a plane, access to her phone so I could help. Luckily the flight to San Francisco from Sydney is around 14 hours, and with a full plane meaning no way of switching seats I was confident we had time to address her problems.

Halfway through the flight, Jessie agreed to hand over the phone for me to do a full assessment. Although not traditionally medically trained, I was confident that I was capable of diagnosing and going some way to addressing her issues. 

By the time I got to the sixth screen filled with apps, it was clear this was an extreme case. Jessie explained that she had a system that involved downloading apps without consideration of their rating or without extensive reading of their reviews. I was shocked and disgusted as she continued. 

Jessie went on to suggest that she didn’t feel the need to delete emails or text, that cloud storage and multiple devices meant she had only been warned of memory storage a few times a month. The mere thought of getting close to a half-full hard drive should install the same level of anxiety as the needle on the petrol gage getting close to a quarter full tank, but Jessie felt nothing. 

Jessie is clearly an extremely high functioning DHS sufferer, unaffected by the levels of stress the rest of us face when confronted with any form of notification. As the plane landed, I realised something. If after 14 hours with a regular guy, trying to explaining in great detail why her hoarding was problematic, Jessie still didn’t get it, what hope was there.

It was clear DHS was more severe than I thought and that even with careful unsolicited help, some sufferers are unable or unwilling to change. All that can be done is for us to look at our uncluttered screens and be thankful that we remain unaffected by arguably the most severe problem of our time.