Keeping memories is special, and it’s a normal part of being human. You buy trinkets on vacation with the intent that they can remind you of the good times you had. You keep the old baby stuff in the basement—even though your kids are in their teens—because catching a glimpse of it gives you the warm fuzzy feelings of years past. And you take photos when you go somewhere special, or on any old day at all, so you can hope to keep some of the fun and joy you felt.
Just like anything, though, keeping these things around can develop into hoarding under certain circumstances. When you take and keep so many photos that it causes distress and anxiety or disrupts your life, this can be considered a type of hoarding called photo hoarding.
The practice is made even easier every day, since smartphones enable you to load your digital devices with countless photos. This can be a component of what’s newly dubbed digital hoarding, something the scientific community itself has just begun to recognize, per a 2023 study.
Just eight years ago, researchers in BMJ Case Reports suggested that digital hoarding be added as a subtype of hoarding disorder, defining it as: “The accumulation and disorganisation of digital files causing distress and impairment in functioning.”
The problem is that it’s extremely easy to overlook. “Digital hoarding is still new and niche enough in the area of hoarding that many people wouldn’t view it as a problem, including some clinicians,” says April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a licensed therapist and OCD specialist at NOCD. After all, it’s normal to want to take photos of the places you go and people you see, and now smartphones have made it easier than ever to snap pics and keep them close.
Hoarding disorder is an OCD-related disorder; and it’s estimated that 2 to 6% of the population has hoarding disorder, according to the International OCD Foundation. Photo hoarding can also be a main element of someone’s OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), which encompasses a vast array of various, often changing themes. But simply keeping photos on your phone, even lots of them, doesn’t mean there’s a problem. “There’s an appropriate non-OCD way that we keep photos—even lots of them. However, OCD can take it to an extreme,” she says.
Understanding Photo Hoarding
Kilduff recalls one therapy member whose OCD “so viciously” convinced them that if they didn’t remember every detail of their life, they wouldn’t remember who they were. As such, they developed an extremely time-consuming compulsion: digitally saving many thousands of screenshots, notes, and photos. “They felt as if they had to keep every single one,” she says. As a result, they expressed an extreme amount of distress at the prospect of deleting just one or two photos.
One way to look at digital photo hoarding is to compare it to the physical practice of scrapbooking. “A scrapbook is filled with just the highlights,” Kilduff says. It might contain a picture of you standing in front of the Grand Canyon on a trip, for instance. On the other hand, someone who’s experiencing photo hoarding would have an entire room full of scrapbooks piled up. You’d go to the Grand Canyon and take a photo of the sign you saw when you pulled up, the squirrel that was hanging out by a tree, multiple points of the path that you had to walk on. “Digital photo hoarding involves an excessive amount of detail that doesn’t serve a purpose—other than to feed a hoarding problem,” Kilduff says.
Identifying Signs and Symptoms of Photo Hoarding
According to Kilduff, photo hoarding may come into play for you if you:
- Have so many photos that you’ll never be able to go back and look at them all
- Take photos of things that others wouldn’t typically consider “save worthy”
- Have an extreme fear of losing or deleting a photo
There are several reasons why someone may engage in hoarding behaviors, though not everyone hoards for the same reasons, says Kilduff. Many of these are related to why someone may start to digitally hoard photos, as well:
- You want to keep it because it may be useful later. (For example, a photo of the sign so you can remember exactly where you were in the park.)
- You have an emotional attachment to it. (Photos can spark a lot of emotion across the board.)
- Getting rid of something that reminds you of someone else can feel harmful. (“It’s like throwing them in the trash!”)
- You see objects, like photos, as parts of your identity.
- You underestimate your own memory.
- It provides a sense of control.
The Consequences of Photo Hoarding on Mental Health
Something like photo hoarding can seem benign, but any form of hoarding turns harmful when it brings distress or problems to your life. If you experience more typical types of hoarding, the accumulation of stuff might impact your quality of life and make it difficult to carry out day-to-day tasks. For example, if too many objects are cluttering your kitchen, you may not be able to use it to cook, or hoarding food can cause a serious pest problem. If you use your bedroom to store things, it may get so overrun with items you can’t sleep in your own bed.
Digital hoarding, and by way of that, photo hoarding, is unique in that these “objects” largely live on a hard drive or the “cloud”—but the impact is no less real. One study in 2018 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior asked nearly 50 adults about their digital behaviors (how much digital “stuff” they accumulate, how easy it is for them to delete something) and found that the overaccumulation of digital material and/or fear of getting rid of it was capable of impairing productivity and psychological well-being, sparking stress and anxiety for some.
“Digital photo hoarding doesn’t just make someone’s life difficult in terms of the presence of items, but it’s about the distress the hoarding causes. As one accumulates more photos, there is an acute fear that there’s even more that they could lose,” says Kilduff. What if you lose your phone or computer? They could be lost forever. What if you missed that moment, or the picture was bad? You’ll never get that opportunity back.
This can be terrifying, because your photo hoarding habit has increasingly convinced you that every photo is incredibly important. It can also reinforce your perceived need to document more and more moments—you can find yourself whipping your phone out any time you feel that familiar urge, removed from the moment and anxious that you’ll miss the chance to document it properly.
This can make an impact socially, as well. “Being out with friends or loved ones becomes less satisfying when driven by the fear that you have to capture everything or it will be lost forever,” says Kilduff. This can impact your relationships if you’re bothering the people you’re with to take photos or if you’re documenting their lives when they don’t want to be a part of it.
Hoarding: An OCD-Related Disorder
OCD is a disorder where obsessions—uncontrollable, recurrent, and distressing thoughts—drive people to engage in compulsions—behaviors, mental or physical, used to neutralize those obsessions and rid oneself of the discomfort they bring. Common subtypes of OCD include contamination, harm, sexual orientation, perfectionism, religious scrupulosity, among many others.
When it comes to hoarding, the behavior is more than just being messy or disorganized or even having a penchant for collecting stuff. It’s considered an OCD-related disorder, and people who have OCD can also have hoarding behavior. OCD-driven hoarding occurs due to an intrusive, distressing feeling or thought. In this case, hoarding photos is the compulsion done to alleviate the distress that comes from a thought like What if this is the last time I’m ever here? What if I forget this experience? I could lose my identity entirely.
Digital or photo hoarding can be considered a hoarding disorder because it involves difficulty in discarding photos because of a perceived need or emotional attachment; an accumulation of photos that creates digital clutter and disorganization; and distress and problems in daily functioning due to the hoarding, as the authors of the BMJ case report cited above point out.
Treatment Approaches for Photo Hoarding
“Taking photos is such an easy habit—but it can be incredibly difficult to break,” says Kilduff. Clinicians will look at two main issues when they’re working with people who are struggling with photo hoarding:
- Is this driven by an urge to acquire more photos?
- Is the main issue that you’re finding it difficult or impossible to discard photos?
You may have one or both, and your clinician can help you work through these challenges.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is the preferred treatment that has the most evidence backing its use in OCD, and it can be incorporated into treatment for OCD that involves photo hoarding.
Though everyone’s treatment is individualized, Kilduff says that they’d probably start with imaginal work. That might be imagining the worst-case scenario: What if your phone died and you couldn’t take any photos? What would that feel like for you? If that conjures up a lot of distress, then ERP will ask you to sit with that distress, rather than trying to find another means to fulfill that compulsion, such as opening your phone to check that your photos are all there.
Next, you might imagine yourself at a future event not taking photos. Working through any feelings of discomfort you feel is what will help you eventually untangle yourself from the need to hoard photos.
After mentally practicing, a later step might be putting this into action in real life, says Kilduff. This happens in smaller steps than what you were imagining earlier: “No one goes from taking constant photos at a concert to none,” she says. So, for this next concert (or whatever event is on your calendar), you might allow yourself to take 10 photos; then five photos; and later just one photo. “This helps break the habit of taking a photo of every single thing and shows you that it’s okay to ‘only’ have a few photos of a special moment,” Kilduff explains.
The licensed clinicians at NOCD are specifically trained in ERP and can help you gain control of OCD-related photo hoarding. By scheduling a free 15-minute call with the NOCD Care team, you can talk about your therapy options and get on the path to developing a personalized plan that’s right for you.
One of the best parts about NOCD is that you can access support in between sessions by messaging your therapist and connecting with Member Advocates, peers who have completed ERP treatment themselves, so you can find a supportive voice when you have the urge to snap another photo.