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ESPOO, Finland — Here’s your sign it’s time to clear your browser. With many people glued to some type of electronic device, it’s easy to get the information you want in a matter of seconds. However, bookmarking every article you swear you’ll read later or keeping tabs open of sites you might need to access at some point takes a toll on your computer — and your mental health. A new study finds that one in four people feel stressed and overwhelmed when they have a cluttered computer.

“We began exploring which challenges make users feel overwhelmed when browsing the internet. We also mapped the behaviors that cause the clutter and how users react to the stress,” says study co-author Janne Lindqvist, an associate professor at Aalto University in Finland.

One of the reasons why people have so much junk on their computers is because of bad browsing habits. People who keep a lot of tabs and browser windows, including ads and pop-up windows, were more likely to stress out. Maybe it started with one innocent tab left open after reading an article, but after a while you can’t tell which tabs you need and which ones you don’t. Study authors say that leaving pages open can also influence how you search for information and move through pages.

“People easily forget what they were looking for. Our concentration lapses when interesting things appear on screen, and then we start following links and collecting tabs,” Lindqvist explains in a university release.

person using MacBook Pro
(Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash)

Multitasking may actually be the problem

Multitasking is another issue of computer clutter. When the tabs involve different activities — online gaming, research, or booking a restaurant reservation — people were more hesitant to close tabs and also had trouble completing complex tasks. Lindqvist likens it to a kitchen table that doubles as a dining table, a play table, and a desk for children to do homework. The difference is all those activities are piling up on the table, leaving little room to complete each one efficiently.

You might tell yourself to do better next time, but the new study finds that’s not the best way to break the habit. The best way to deal with the issue is to practice problem-focused solutions. For example, you could set a maximum number of tabs you can keep open on your computer at one time.

While problem-focused solutions work the best, they are not 100-percent foolproof. The other hurdle to overcome is getting people to adopt these tactics and stick to them. Emotion-focused strategies, such as trying not to think about the stress or discussing the problem with others, can end up being counterproductive. Although, there are some situations where changing your attitude holds some merit.

Researchers say a person cannot control how many pop-up ads or advertisements will come up on a site. In this scenario, finding ways to cope with intruding windows can reduce stress. One way is through organizing techniques. By organizing, the authors are not talking about the downloadable online tools designed to declutter your space. Passing your problems to another, even if it’s an AI program, does little to fix the problem. These approaches rearrange rather than clean the space — similar to a “tidy” room with all the mess swept under the bed.

“We use computers every day, and it’s definitely not always ideal. Many things would actually be much better handled only on paper,” says Lindqvist. “I look at this from the point of view of how we can live a meaningful and good life despite computers.”

Study authors presented the research at the 2023 CHI 2023 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

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About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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2 Comments

  1. SuzanneL says:

    Wow. Such judgement-loaded words, like “clutter”, “innocent tabs” (vs guilty tabs?), “tidy” (vs untidy, a computer?), “”clean” vs “reorganized”, which is now redifined to mean just “sweeping ‘it’ under the rug”, as if your collected knowledge is so much garbage (let us manage it all for you with censored cloud computing and ever narrowed to nothing search engines, and as if some Finnish house marm is going to white glove your computer and browser history. Remember, computers’ first purpose was to reduce the whirlwind of paper in the world. That’s why hard drives are so large. But beware people who want to impose guilt over you having “too many information sources”. They’re coming for it, that’s for sure. “We demand you be dumber, people!” For the cheeldrun. But that means you. Hang on to your hardcover books.

  2. JimO says:

    I wonder how much time and money was wasted coming up with this pile of dog poo?