"People are keeping huge collections of digital possessions," said Steve Whittaker, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz who specialises in human-computer interaction.
"There has been little exploration of the negative role of digital possessions when people want to forget aspects of their lives," said Whittaker.
Whittaker and co-author Corina Sas, of Lancaster University, examined the challenges of digital possessions and their disposal after a romantic breakup.
Digital possessions include photos, messages, music, and video stored across multiple devices such as computers, tablets, phones, and cameras, researchers said.
Their pervasiveness "creates problems during a breakup, as people 'inhabit' their digital space where photos and music constantly remind them about their prior relationship."In interviews with 24 young people between the ages of 19 and 34, Whittaker and Sas found that digital possessions after a breakup are often evocative and upsetting, leading to distinct disposal strategies.
Twelve of the subjects were deleters, eight were keepers, and four others were selective disposers.
Some of the heartbroken may want to forget but are "extremely resistant to actual deletion," Whittaker and Sas found, most often the "dumpees." Others later regret disposing of everything.
Disposal is made more difficult today because "digital possessions are in vast collections spread across multiple devices, applications, web-services, and platforms," they said.
"When the relationship is good, this promotes a rich digital life. But when it sours people have to systematically cull collections across multiple digital spaces," researchers said.
Facebook photos can be untagged but not deleted if posted by someone else. "It's time consuming and emotionally taxing because people tend to re-engage with possessions, especially photos," they note.
Some of the initial tactics encountered were: changing one's relationship status to "single," immediately unfriending or blocking ex-partner's access to ones' profile.
The study appears in the conference proceedings.