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

Alison Malmon was wrapping up the end of her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania in 2000 when she got the news: Her older brother Brian, a student at Columbia University, had killed himself.

He’d struggled for years with mental illness, Malmon said, but concealed his symptoms. Determined to help, Malmon formed a group at Penn a year and a half later to empower students to talk openly about mental health. Her group, Active Minds, blossomed into a national organization that today has more than 450 campus chapters. Leaders with the organization spend their time planning programming and talking with college students about the now well-documented pressure today’s young people face.

“What you hear often is just a need to be perfect,” said Malmon, now the group’s executive director, “and a need to present oneself as perfect.”

A new study out of the United Kingdom shows just that — today’s college students want to be perfect, and more so than their parents did. But the reasons behind that, the researchers say, are deeply ingrained in today’s culture.

Two British researchers studied more than 40,000 students from the United States, Canada and Britain in what they believe is the first study examining perfectionism across multiple generations. They found that what they called “socially prescribed perfectionism” increased by a third between 1989 (when Gen Xers attended college) and 2016 (with a mix of millennials and Gen Zers), and that culture could be driving up rates of mental-health disorders.

Lead researcher Thomas Curran said that while so many of today’s young people try to curate a perfect life on Instagram, social media’s grip isn’t the only reason for perfectionist tendencies. Instead, he said, it may be driven by competition percolating more into modern society, meaning young people can’t avoid being sorted and ranked in education and employment. That comes from new norms like greater numbers of college students, standardized testing, and parenting that increasingly emphasizes success in education.

“We now have forms of competition where it never used to be,” said Curran, of the University of Bath. “Forcing [college students] to compare, compete, and keep up with social comparisons in turn is forcing them to develop perfectionist tendencies.”

Curran and coauthor Andrew P. Hill, an associate professor at York St. John University, analyzed college students between 1989 and 2016 who completed the “Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale,” a survey that puts a figure on perfectionism. The survey asks respondents to agree or disagree on a scale with statements like: “When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect,” or “Anything that I do that is less than excellent will be seen as poor work by those around me.”

The study, published Dec. 28 in the journal Psychological Bulletin, concluded that three categories of perfectionism, which they define as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations,” increased since 1989:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism — a self-imposed desire to be perfect — increased by 10 percent.
  2. Other-oriented perfectionism, or the practice of holding others to irrationally high standards, increased by 16 percent.
  3. 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.”

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.”