Health & Spirit

College students today are bigger perfectionists than their parents — but it's not all Instagram's fault

Anna Orso, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

-- Other-oriented perfectionism, or the practice of holding others to irrationally high standards, increased by 16 percent.

-- Socially-prescribed perfectionism, or the perception that there are unrealistically high expectations from others, increased by 33 percent.

It's the latter dimension that gives researchers the most concern. Curran and Hill describe socially prescribed perfectionism as "the most debilitating" and said it's a better predictor of depression and suicide than the other two.

So where's that socially prescribed perfectionism come from? Curran said it would be "easy" to attribute the rise to social media, and while he admitted those platforms "put the problem on steroids," he said there are other factors, like an increase in meritocracy among millennials.

The researchers say today's hypercompetitive society tells young people: Have the highest grade point average, get into the best school, obtain the highest-paying job, and the perfect life can be yours.

For example, in 1976, half of high school seniors expected to get a college degree of some kind. By 2008, more than 80 percent expected the same, but actual degree attainment didn't keep pace. The researchers say this suggests expectations are increasingly unrealistic. They also said changes in parenting style over the last two decades might have had an impact. Curran and Hill wrote that as parents feel increased pressure to raise successful children, they in turn pass their "achievement anxieties" onto their kids through "excessive involvement in their child's routines, activities or emotions."

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Those in the mental-health community like Malmon say they're concerned about the impact the culture of perfectionism has on mental health on campuses. She's comforted, she said, by students working to destigmatize the issue.

"Mental health has truly become this generation's social justice issue," she said. "It's our job to equip them with the tools, to let people know that it's not their fault, and that seeking help is a sign of strength and not weakness."

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