Study finds rise in millennial perfectionism, parents and social media blamed

By The Canadian Press
March 19, 2019 - 12:30pm

HALIFAX — Millennials are more inclined to be perfectionists than previous generations, according to a new study that found a rise in perfectionism from 1990 to 2015.

The study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review suggested parental and socio-cultural factors, including a rise in social media, contributed to increasing rates of perfectionism.

Dr. Simon Sherry, one of the study's authors and a clinical psychologist in Halifax, said perfectionism is a serious and even deadly epidemic in modern western societies.

"We see similarly alarming increases in mental health problems on our university campuses, including depression, anxiety and stress," Sherry, a professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University, said in an interview Tuesday.

"Perfectionism may be caught up in the rising tide of mental health problems."

One of the largest studies ever conducted on perfectionism, the meta-analytic review — a "study of studies" — involved 77 studies and nearly 25,000 participants ranging in age from 15 to 49.

It found that perfectionists tend to strive for flawlessness, have unrealistic standards, and experience intense pressure to be perfect.

They also tend to become more neurotic — characterized by negative emotions like guilt, envy, and anxiety — and less conscientious as time passes, according to the study. 

It also found women and men reported similar levels of perfectionism.

Sherry said social media has put unprecedented pressure on children and youth to conform to unrealistic standards.

He said children need to learn to have healthy skepticism toward the seemingly perfect lives promoted through social media and advertisements.

"We need to cultivate a culture-wide skepticism toward these unrealistic and idealized media and social media images we're being bombarded with," Sherry said.  

The study also found that parental criticism and expectations — including parents that are overly judgmental or hold unrealistically high expectations — can contribute to perfectionism. 

Sherry said the so-called helicopter and snowplow styles of parenting put undue pressure on children.

"We often have hovering, controlling and critical parents, who push their kids to be perfect," he said. "These parents often love their children in a conditional manner ... these kids are only as good as their last grade, their soccer game, their last hockey match because the parents love them proportionate to how well they are performing."

Sherry added: "It's a very difficult message for a child to internalize. We need to challenge these parents not to nurture or love their children in a performance-contingent way."

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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