College students today strive for perfection more than previous generations and it could be damaging to their mental health.
That's what two British researchers found in an analysis of nearly 42,000 college students from the United States, Canada and Britain, what they believe is the first study of the generational differences in perfectionism.
Lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and co-author Andrew Hill of York St. John University describe perfectionism as "an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” In their study, published Dec. 28 in the journal Psychological Bulletin, college students from 1989 to 2016 took a test to measure self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.
Modern-day students, the study found, display more characteristics of three types of perfectionism. The most drastic increase was attributed to perceived social expectations.
The more recent students scored higher in all three forms of perfectionism. Between 1989 and 2016, the scores for socially prescribed perfectionism — or perceiving the excessive expectations of others— increased by 33%. Other-oriented expectations — putting unrealistic expectations on others — went up 16%, and self-oriented perfectionism — our irrational desire to be perfect — increased 10%.
“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” Curran said. “Today's young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”
Curran expounded on the reasons for the rise in perfectionism, suggesting social media can drive perfectionism by causing young people to compare themselves to others, which might cause dissatisfaction with their bodies and social isolation. He said this theory has not been tested.
The perfectionism problem, Curran suggests, might be taking its toll on students' mental health. The study states increases in psychological difficulties such as depression and anxiety can be linked to perfectionism, which is a "core vulnerability to a variety of disorders, symptoms, and syndromes."
In recent years, American college students seeking mental health treatment increased. From 2009 to 2015, the average number of students seeking mental health treatment surged about 30%, far outpacing the increase in enrollment (5.6%), according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University.
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