The Growth Mindset: “Nice Try!” Is Not Enough

NY Times Motherlode
By KJ DELL’ANTONIA JANUARY 21, 2016

Among the most-uttered phrases of my generation of parents have to be these: “Great effort!” “Nice try!” “I can tell you worked so hard!”

Many of us have sipped from the well of research suggesting that children praised for effort rather than ability stick to their work longer, pursue more creative solutions and enjoy the whole process more. Those kids, we want to believe, get what Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls the “growth mind-set:” the belief that their abilities can be developed, as opposed to a “fixed mind-set” in which innate aptitude limits the ability to learn.

The growth mind-set has joined “grit” in the pantheon of desirable qualities we long to bestow upon our children, while secretly suspecting that those particular gifts aren’t ours for the giving. We have collectively seized on the idea that a growth mind-set leads to success, while a fixed mind-set produces the child on the floor sobbing “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

And so we sing the effort song again and again, even when the result of that effort is perhaps not all that we would wish, and even when we know that their effort was strongly boosted by our behind-the-scenes help in varying forms. In doing so, we take a big idea — that the ability to keep trying matters more than immediate success — and drag it down to a small scale. While we’re at it, we risk teaching our children to expect that any effort, no matter how puny or how enabled, should be enough to earn them the results they desire.

That’s far from the real message of the research surrounding the growth mind-set. The exclusive focus on effort has been misplaced, says Dr. Dweck, whose book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” delivered the phrase into popular culture. The emphasis should be on learning as an active process, not a goal. “We’re not just saying ‘effort’ anymore,” she says. “We also talk about using good strategies and getting help from others.” Part of a growth mind-set is being willing to learn how best to learn. “Parents may be familiar with the growth mind-set, but they may be using it toward the goal of the next test grade or school application. That’s not what it is. It’s about learning and improving and loving the process. Those other things come about as a byproduct.”

Just as effort alone can’t deliver results, praising effort isn’t enough to help a child develop a love for the challenge of learning. Both parents and teachers should follow that “great effort” message with something more. Dr. Dweck provides a list of suggestions in an article for Education Week. When a child is trying but not succeeding, she writes, appreciate the effort, then add “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” When a child is discouraged, avoid the “you can do it if you try” trap. Instead, acknowledge the challenge. “That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.”

As children get older, parents can also talk with them about the ways their successes haven’t been entirely dependent on their own efforts, no matter how great those have been. “They should recognize that not everyone has the opportunities to develop their abilities in the same way,” says Dr. Dweck. “Other kids may be working hard, but not have people teaching them the right strategies, or giving them the help they need to flourish.”

Children growing up with parents and teachers who care about helping them develop a “growth mind-set” are already ahead of the game. As parents, we can encourage them to use the strategies and skills they develop in both smaller and larger ways.

“I worry that kids aren’t being taught to dream big any more,” says Dr. Dweck. “It’s so grade-focused. I feel like parents should be focusing on what contribution children can make. What’s the purpose of growing up and having an education and developing skills? What kind of impact are you going to have on the world?” A growth mind-set, she says, should help a child feel fortunate to have the opportunity to make a difference.

It’s a somewhat complex lesson we hope to convey: It’s not enough just to try, you have to eventually find a way to learn, and yet it’s not all about immediate or even long-term success. As temptingly simple as the whole “praise effort, not ability” concept seemed, there are no shortcuts to the growth mind-set, not for our children — or for ourselves.

Ironically, it’s easy for adults to fall victim to a “fixed mind-set” about our own children. We need to remember that an appreciation for challenge, and a belief that we can find a way to change, learn and grow, can’t itself be fixed in place. Instead, we all struggle with fear and discouragement at times. Sometimes we run toward new experiences. Sometimes we have to find a way to learn something we really did not want to learn. Sometimes, some part of us is always on the floor, sobbing: “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

So how do you raise a child with a growth mind-set, along with a nice healthy appreciation for where it came from and the will to keep it strong? By applying the encouraging messages of the growth mind-set to yourself. I’ll borrow, out of context, another phrase from Dr. Dweck: “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

That’s a great thing to say to our children, and just as important a thing to say to ourselves.

To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving

The Washington Post

January 20

As your oldest child begins to fill out her college application, it is hard not to feel a rising panic. For the last four years she has thrown herself into her school work, taken AP classes, studied for the SAT, worked on the school paper, played on the field hockey team and tutored elementary school children.

Yet as she methodically records her activities on the application, it becomes clear that this was simply not enough. There are 10 looming blank spaces and although her days have been overflowing with homework, activities and volunteering, she has only five activities to report. There are 15 spaces to record the four AP classes she was so proud of taking.

You wonder who the kid is who can complete all of these blank spaces, and what has gone wrong that this is what applying to college now means.

A new report released today by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, takes a major step in trying to change the college admissions process to make it more humane, less super-human.

Parents, educators and college administrators have long wrestled with the unintended negative side effects of the admissions process, like the intense focus on personal achievement and the unfair advantages of more affluent students. The report, entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, aims to tackle these complex issues. It lays out a blueprint for addressing three of the most intractable challenges facing college applicants today: excessive academic performance pressure, the emphasis on personal achievement over good citizenship, and the uneven opportunities available to students of varying income levels and backgrounds.

Many colleges have tried to address these concerns over the years but it takes a unified effort to make a big impact, says lead author Richard Weissbourd. More than 80 stakeholders, including admissions officers (like Harvard’s), deans, professors and high school counselors have endorsed the report.

“It’s the first time in history that I’m aware of” that a group of colleges is coming together to lay out what is and what isn’t valued in the admissions process, says Weissbourd.

“Yes, we want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good,” explains Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, one of the report’s endorsers.

In response to the report, Yale will be adding an essay question on next year’s application that asks applicants “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good,” Quinlan says. Yale will also “advocate for more flexibility in the extracurricular sections on both the Common Application and Coalition Application, so that colleges can more easily control how they ask students to list and reflect on their extracurricular involvement.”

The University of Virginia is also in agreement with the report. “We supportTurning the Tide because we philosophically agree with many of the principal points in the document, [like] promoting, encouraging, and developing good citizenship, strong character, personal responsibility, [and] civic engagement in high school students,” says Gregory Roberts, the school’s dean of admissions.

Like Yale, several of the report’s endorsers have already modified their admissions efforts or practices as a result of these findings. Weissbourd said that over the next two years, Making Caring Common will work with college admissions officers, parents, high school guidance counselors and others to further implement the report’s recommendations. He hopes that many of these points will eventually be incorporated into the Common, Coalition and Universal applications as well.

Here are five highlights from the report, along with tips from Making Caring Common for how parents can help turn the tide:

1. Reduce stress by limiting course loads and extracurricular activities. Admissions offices can reduce undue pressure by sending a clear message that “long brag sheets do not increase students’ chances of admission.” To make this point, the authors recommend applications provide room for only two to four activities or ask students to describe two to three meaningful activities in an essay. Tallying up a lengthy listing of AP credits should be discouraged in favor of more sustained effort in areas of genuine interest.

Parent tip: Help your teens by encouraging them to find activities, classes and volunteer experiences that are meaningful to them, but that do not create undue stress.

2. Value the different ways students make contributions to their families and communities. Current applications often disadvantage students from less affluent backgrounds who may make important but overlooked contributions, such as working part-time to help support their families or taking care of a family member, leaving them no time for extracurricular activities or community service. Colleges need to clearly communicate the high value they place on family contributions and give ample opportunity for applicants to explain their role. By doing so, the authors hope to redefine achievement in broader terms.

Parent tip: If your teens help to run the household, babysit a younger sibling after school, or make other significant family contributions, make sure they write about it on their applications.

3. Stress the importance of authenticity. At the heart the report is the notion that admissions committees are looking for students who are authentic and honest about their interests and accomplishments. Students are encouraged to find the right college fit by remaining true to themselves, keeping an open mind about their options and examining a broad range of colleges. It should also be made clear that over-coached applications can jeopardize admission. Confidence and integrity are best reflected in the student’s own voice.

Parent tip: College admissions officers can sense when an application is not authentic or trumped up. Help teens present themselves in their best light, while still staying true to who they really are.

4. Alleviate Test Pressure.  Some colleges have already taken steps to de-emphasize the weight of the SATs and ACTs by making these tests optional. Admissions offices can reduce the pressure surrounding standardized tests by doing this or clearly explaining the test’s weight in the admissions process.

Parent tip: Try to discourage students from taking the same standardized test more than twice, as it rarely results in a meaningfully higher score. Remind your children of that.

5. Engage in meaningful community service. The report highlights a common misconception that volunteering for certain high-profile causes or traveling to exotic countries will make an application stand out. It will, but for the wrong reasons: namely that it looks inauthentic.

Parent tip: Help your teens find sustained community service opportunities that extend for a year or more where the student can be fully engaged in something that is important to them and, in turn, have a meaningful impact. Community engagement can take many different forms, from addressing local needs to serving in a soup kitchen to volunteering on a political campaign or making meaningful contributions at home. Look for opportunities where teens can work side by side with the people they are helping, instead of for them, which can sometimes feel patronizing and may not create as rich an experience.

There will be some applicants who will try to game these new recommendations by engaging in community service in which they have no real interest and later writing insincerely about their experience. However, Weissbourd notes, even students who engage in community service with misplaced motivation may have a powerful learning experience. Research shows that for many students service activities are an opportunity for maturity and growth, even when they are mandatory or driven by the college application process.

Lisa Heffernan writes about parenting during the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can follow her on Twitter and Grown and Flown on Facebook.

Jennifer Wallace is a freelance writer based in New York, where she lives with her husband and their three children. Twitter: @wallacejennieb.

How to Raise a Resilient Kid

Lorraine Allen 

Writer, mom and blogger at FeedingLina.com

Huffington Post,12/03/2015

Wouldn’t it be great if kids could pick themselves up after a fall and be back swinging on the monkey bars, undeterred? They can, and they will, if we give them the basic tools they need to develop resilience. Happily, this emotional muscle can be strengthened at any age, in many simple ways.

As parents, we instinctively want to protect our kids from harm and pitfalls; but they’re natural parts of life. The American Psychological Association notes that while we “tend to idealize childhood as a carefree time,” in fact, children are tasked with adapting to different social and family environments, from moves, to new schools, and their skills and performance are regularly tested, academically, socially and physically. And these days, we have a lot more to worry about than just monkey bars. Kids are exposed to violence, danger, and even terror through the media and in real life, despite our best efforts to shield them. But instead of worrying about what might happen to our kids, as they grow, and wondering how we can protect them from everything we cannot, we’re far better off focusing on helping them develop resilience, so that they can overcome any challenges, stresses and hurdles they’ll face throughout life. “The ability to thrive despite these challenges arises from the skills of resilience,” the APA explains.

After decades of research, Martin E.P. Seligman at Harvard has identified three ways people react to trauma and adversity depending on our levels of resiliency:

• Those who crumble, feel hopeless and remain stuck in a rut.

• Those who stumble, feel despair, but bounce back.

• Those who not only overcome, but who thrive despite hardship, emerging stronger than before. (“These,” Seligman explains, “are the people of whom Friedrich Nietzsche said: that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”)

If we give our kids the tools they need to bounce back from adversity in childhood, it will continue to serve them well their whole lives, and they will be far more likely to fall into Seligman’s third, most successful group. Here’s a road map that’s clear and simple to follow:

1. Offer Support

Being present, showing unwavering love and support, and providing basic care and a safe home are the cornerstones of the supportive environment kids need to help build resilience. It’s important to note that when kids are misbehaving or struggling, as they often do, they are testing the strength of this foundation they so rely on. When things get tough, stay calm, and listen. If kids feel their struggles are taken seriously, they will be better able to overcome them.

We can also create supportive environments by including family and community, such as school friends, neighbors or church groups, regularly in our lives and in the lives of our children. Help them feel that they are surrounded by a strong support system, and this will in turn give them the strength they need to learn to feel secure in themselves, and in the world.

2. Promote Optimism

Seligman and his colleagues found that in the most resilient individuals “optimism is the key.” Fostering optimism and a positive outlook in kids helps them to develop a sense of constant potential for positive future outcomes, despite adversity. Try asking kids about something positive they experienced each day. If they’re feeling down and can’t think of anything, encourage them by saying, “Let’s think back on the last time you felt really great. What were you doing?” Or, if a child is struggling with something, like a recent move or a difficult class, ask them how they wish things would turn out. Envisioning their own version of a positive outcome is a good exercise to help kids feel from feeling despair, and instead keep their chin up and be able to move forward, even when faced with difficult situations.

Sharing stories with kids about characters who have overcome difficulties with positive attitudes is another great tool to promote optimism. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Mulan, and Rosie Revere Engineer are just a few popular examples.

3. Foster Self-control

Starting even before that coveted moment a toddler graduates to big-boy underpants, there are countless opportunities in a child’s life, both big and small, for parents to help kids develop the skills they need to become more resilient by empowering and encouraging them to take control of their own world. We can notice and praise their potty training efforts and shoe-lace-tying, even when they fail, to show that struggling and imperfection are a normal parts of learning–not something to get too beat down by. We can applaud and encourage the control they are trying to take of their own lives, and help them build the skills they need to succeed, one step at a time. When kids gain self-control, they gain confidence, and are less likely to despair when life throws them a punch.

Involving kids, in age-appropriate ways, help your family overcome hurdles together, even ones as small as fixing a flat tire or broken door knob, are great ways to build problem-solving skills, confidence, a sense of control and therefore resilience, too.

4. Build Purpose

Giving kids the opportunity to contribute to society helps them understand that they are an important, valued part of it. Try these: volunteering at park clean-ups; checking on an elderly neighbor; pet-sitting; donating books to the library; delivering food to a shelter.

Kids strive to feel important and useful. Offering opportunities to help others builds resilience by providing this deep sense of purpose and accomplishment they yearn for; one that’s not graded with a pass of fail, but is unquestionably good. Helping others promotes kids’ personal connections to their community, and their sense of self-worth and hope, too, that they can make the world–their own world–a better place.

Leveraging the “fresh start effect”

The Brilliant Report

Annie Murphy Paul

Here are a couple of things you already know about resolutions: One: We customarily make them around New Year’s. Two: These resolutions often fail.

And here’s something about resolutions that you probably didn’t know: You can use them in conjunction what psychologists call “the fresh start effect” to effectively generate motivation throughout the year.

Fascinating research conducted by Wharton professor Katherine Milkman and her colleagues shows that we are more likely to start a diet, go to the gym, and make commitments to reach our goals around the start of a new year. But, the researchers found, we’re also more likely to make such moves toward self-improvement aroundother “temporal landmarks”: a birthday, a holiday, the start of a new semester, a new month, or even just a Monday, the start of a new week. Even without all the hoopla around New Year’s, we seem to seek out occasions to declare a fresh start, and these fresh starts work—for a while, at least.

Milkman and her colleagues suggest that there are two processes operating here:

• These milestones create for us a new “mental accounting period,” with the accompanying sense that past lapses are behind us and we’re facing a clean slate. A line has been drawn between our fallible “past self” and our as-yet unsullied “present self,” which we (ever the optimists!) expect will do better.

• Temporal landmarks also prompt us to momentarily turn our gaze away from the daily grind, toward a larger vision of what we want for ourselves and how we can achieve it.

These processes constitute powerful psychological levers that we can use on ourselves again and again. It doesn’t seem like they should keep working, but they do—because we never stop being motivated to see ourselves in a positive light, and therefore to create distance from our past failures. We get a little boost in motivation each time we embark on a fresh start—not a lot, but enough to get us to the next temporal milestone.

So, if you’ve already fallen down on the resolutions you made on January 1st, don’t despair. Just look for minimally meaningful occasions to “start over” going forward: the first day of spring, the first day back from vacation, the first day of a new fiscal quarter. In fact, a fresh-start opportunity is just four days away: the shiny new Monday that awaits at the beginning of next week.

Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?

Student wellness is constantly in our thoughts at Sacred Heart.  The topic is especially compelling as independent schools, especially in the Northeast, tend to be pressure cookers as students vie for admissions to the best colleges, and as the parents of our students tend to be hard working over-achievers.  As a school, we feel compelled to have outstanding programs in so many different areas – academics, arts, athletics and service.  Many of our students then feel the need to be involved in and excel in many different areas, which then leads to stress.
We have also worked hard at Sacred Heart to ensure we are promoting balance for our students.  The unique mission of a Sacred Heart school gives us “permission” to concentrate on other activities that promote wellness – such as faith, service, fun and the ability for our girls to be themselves without worrying about how boys will react.  Like the school in the article, we’ve implemented nightly homework limits and have eliminated homework over vacations.  Health classes, advisory activities, arts, sports and physical education also promote balance with our girls.  Despite these many efforts, we know some girls still find our environment to be rather stressful.  Our hope is that our small community and nurturing faculty will help us recognize those who are feeling pressure.  Parents should contact us immediately if they feel their daughter is experiencing an unhealthy amount of stress.
ds
Vicki Abeles, January 2, 2016

STUART SLAVIN, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, knows something about the impact of stress. After uncovering alarming rates of anxiety and depression among his medical students, Dr. Slavin and his colleagues remade the program: implementing pass/fail grading in introductory classes, instituting a half-day off every other week, and creating small learning groups to strengthen connections among students. Over the course of six years, the students’ rates of depression and anxiety dropped considerably.

But even Dr. Slavin seemed unprepared for the results of testing he did in cooperation with Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., a once-working-class city that is increasingly in Silicon Valley’s orbit. He had anonymously surveyed two-thirds of Irvington’s 2,100 students last spring, using two standard measures, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The results were stunning: 54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

“This is so far beyond what you would typically see in an adolescent population,” he told the school’s faculty at a meeting just before the fall semester began. “It’s unprecedented.” Worse, those alarming figures were probably an underestimation; some students had missed the survey while taking Advanced Placement exams.

What Dr. Slavin saw at Irvington is a microcosm of a nationwide epidemic of school-related stress. We think of this as a problem only of the urban and suburban elite, but in traveling the country to report on this issue, I have seen that this stress has a powerful effect on children across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life. Children living in poverty who aspire to college face the same daunting admissions arms race, as well as the burden of competing for scholarships, with less support than their privileged peers. Even those not bound for college are ground down by the constant measurement in schools under pressure to push through mountains of rote, impersonal material as early as preschool.

Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.

Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.

At the other end of the age spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure.

“I’m talking about 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds who are coming in with these conditions. We never used to see that,” says Lawrence Rosen, a New Jersey pediatrician who works with pediatric associations nationally. “I’m hearing this from my colleagues everywhere.”

What sets Irvington apart in a nation of unhealthy schools is that educators, parents and students there have chosen to start making a change. Teachers are re-examining their homework demands, in some cases reviving the school district’s forgotten homework guideline — no more than 20 minutes per class per night, and none on weekends. In fact,research supports limits on homework. Students have started a task force to promote healthy habits and balanced schedules. And for the past two years, school counselors have met one on one with every student at registration time to guide them toward a manageable course load.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” said one Irvington teacher, who has seen the problem worsen over her 16 years on the job.

A growing body of medical evidence suggests that long-term childhood stress is linked not only with a higher risk of adult depression and anxiety, but with poor physical health outcomes, as well. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study, a continuing project of the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, shows that children who experience multiple traumas — including violence, abuse or a parent’s struggle with mental illness — are more likely than others to suffer heart disease, lung disease, cancer and shortened life spans as adults. Those are extreme hardships but a survey of the existing science in the 2013 Annual Review of Public Health suggested that the persistence of less severe stressors could similarly act as a prescription for sickness.

“Many of the health effects are apparent now, but many more will echo through the lives of our children,” says Richard Scheffler, a health economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We will all pay the cost of treating them and suffer the loss of their productive contributions.”

Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping, our kids’ prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn’t escaped their professors, only 14 percent of whom believethat their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 report. Just 29 percent of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today’s workplace. Both of those numbers have plummeted since 2004.

Contrary to a commonly voiced fear that easing pressure will lead to poorer performance, St. Louis medical school students’ scores on the medical boards exams have actually gone up since the stress reduction strategy was put in place.

At Irvington, it’s too early to gauge the impact of new reforms, but educators see promising signs. Calls to school counselors to help students having emotional episodes in class have dropped from routine to nearly nonexistent. The A.P. class failure rate dropped by half. Irvington students continue to be accepted at respected colleges.

There are lessons to be learned from Irvington’s lead. Working together, parents, educators and students can make small but important changes: instituting everyday homework limits and weekend and holiday homework bans, adding advisory periods for student support and providing students opportunities to show their growth in creative ways beyond conventional tests. Communities across the country — like Gaithersburg, Md., Cadiz, Ky., and New York City — are already taking some of these steps. In place of the race for credentials, local teams are working to cultivate deep learning, integrity, purpose and personal connection. In place of high-stakes childhoods, they are choosing health.

App Makers Reach Out to the Teenager on Mobile

Here’s an interesting article on the social media habits of teenagers.  It is important for us to remember that middle school students have a strong desire to stay connected to their friends and classmates, and that social media is one of the prime vehicles for connections and affirmation.  The 24/7 nature of social media certainly makes it extra challenging to be a teenager – there’s no vacation from the pressure on the girls to present themselves positively online.  Dave

The New York Times
By CONOR DOUGHERTY JAN. 1, 2016

 

Over the past decade, advertisers have spent untold millions trying to turn Talia Kocar and her peers in the millennial generation into loyal customers. But on a recent afternoon in Santa Monica, Calif., in a kind of consumer torch-passing, Ms. Kocar, 25, watched a focus group of teenagers drink free Snapple and suck Doritos powder off their thumbs while answering questions about their smartphones.

Ms. Kocar works on Wishbone, a social networking application full of breezy polls about pop culture, prom dresses and other fixtures of teenage life. Users — most of them girls — post side-by-side pictures that compare rappers (Lil Wayne or Tyga?), celebrities (Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé?) and the like.

Like most social media apps, Wishbone users achieve status by amassing friends who vote with a thumb tap. There is a bonus, however, which is that twice a day, Ms. Kocar and her team send a “Daily Dozen” of the best and most popular polls to every Wishbone user. This is somewhat like being named “funniest” or “most clever” in a yearbook: Featured polls are guaranteed a lot of votes, and votes, similar to likes on Facebook, are the coin of Wishbone’s realm.
Ms. Kocar said her first attempts at market research began with trips to Starbucks stores and nail salons, where she would find Wishbone users and ask them what they did and did not like about the app. She got lots of information, but wanted more. Hence, the focus group.

Teenagers being teenagers, the room was full of angst and contradictions. They love Instagram, the photo-sharing app, but are terrified their posts will be ignored or mocked. They feel less pressure on Snapchat, the disappearing-message service, but say Snapchat can be annoying because disappearing messages make it hard to follow a continuing conversation. They do not like advertisements but also do not like to pay for things.

At one point a questioner asked the group when they were least likely to be online. “When I’m in the shower,” a girl responded.

Nobody laughed, because it was barely an exaggeration. About three-quarters of United States teenagers have access to a mobile phone, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Most go online daily and about a quarter of them use the Internet “almost constantly.”

Those numbers have created a growing advertising market and fortunes for apps like Snapchat and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. This year companies are projected to spend $30 billion on in-app advertising in the United States, roughly double what they spent in 2014, according to eMarketer, a research company.

But even though these services all have the same core functions — find friends, post pictures, send messages — teenagers juggle them constantly, developing arcane customs for what to post where and ditching one app for another the moment it becomes uncool.

That churn leaves an opening for upstarts like Wishbone, which is about a year old and already has about three million monthly users. Since July it has ranked among the top 30 most-downloaded social media apps in Apple’s App Store, according to App Annie, a data and analytics company. But staying there will be tough. Mobile apps are a hit or miss business in which a handful of top players get most of the users and money.

 

Hoping to get their app in that elite few, people like Ms. Kocar pore through data and turn to focus groups for insight on how to get new users to sign up and old users to stay. Their efforts are a window into how teenage lives are documented on mobile screens.

“They have immediate social validation or lack of validation at the touch of a button,” said Michael Jones, chief executive of Science Inc., which owns Wishbone. “So if you thought that the immediate gratification generation was two generations ago, you haven’t even seen what immediate gratification looks like until you start spending time with, like, a teen on a phone.”

A Daily Rotation of Apps

One hot afternoon last summer, Leila Khan and Lucy Nemerov, two eighth graders from Palo Alto, Calif., cruised their local mall, scoring free samples at See’s Candies and dropping into Brandy Melville to look at clothes, but not buy. Lucy is an avid Wishbone user, but the app is just one among several that she and her friends rotate through each day.

To manage their identities in and obligations to this world in their pockets, they adhere to rules that have somehow been absorbed and adopted by their peers. For instance, that afternoon, since nothing particularly special happened, Lucy posted a few videos to Snapchat — including a clip of me interviewing her — but nothing on Instagram.

Why the distinction? Because Instagram is special, Leila explained. On Snapchat, where messages disappear, you can be less selective because there is a lower bar for quality. On Instagram, you have to be careful not to clog your friends’ feeds with a barrage of low-quality pictures that might annoy them.

They also regularly delete their Instagram photos so that their profiles never have more than a handful at a time. For comparison, I’m a medium-level Instagram user and have several hundred. They reacted to this information as if it were the smell of warm garbage.

“I have zero right now,” Lucy said.

“Yeah, ’cause I’m like, ‘Oh wait, I look stupid in this one,’ ” Leila said.

Some of Leila’s rules for Instagram include never posting more than one photo a week, avoiding photo filters (too fake) and hashtags (too desperate). She tries to find a timely occasion to post — such as National Watermelon Day — and is so concerned about having the right caption that she keeps a running list of ideas on her iPhone. Neither girl had any such rules for Facebook, because they hardly use it.

App makers fear this kind of juggling the way TV networks fear DVRs. Each time someone leaves one app for another, there is a chance that user will never come back. And since apps make money only when users are plugged in and absorbing ads, the number of monthly users is less important than how many users they get each day — and how long they stay.
Social media apps and messaging services — Wishbone included — tend to get an outsize portion of their ad revenue from a handful of mobile game makers and other app download ads. But Wishbone is making the not-terribly-crazy bet that as people spend more time with their phones and advertisers become comfortable with the medium, more brands and money will follow.

 

For now big advertisers remain focused on the millennial generation, who, at about 18 to 35 years old, are old enough to buy cars, homes and other big-ticket items. But an early wave is starting to think about the next group, said Erna Alfred Liousas, an analyst at Forrester Research, who said the firm had a number of financial services and media companies ask for studies on the under-17 group.

As with coffee and newspapers, the key to a successful app is to make it a daily habit. Which is why in early September, Mr. Jones of Science sat in a cinder block room staring at a computer screen full of data. He was with Benoit Vatere, head of Science’s mobile group, and Peter Pham, the company’s chief business officer, discussing the best time to send push notifications alerting Wishbone users to new polls.

Push notifications — those incessant reminders that make your phone light up and ding — are the infantry of app warfare, cracking the attention span to remind users that someone on the Internet might be talking about them. All summer Wishbone had been sending out alerts four times a day, but the three men were thinking about adding more and, now that students were back in class, trying to recalibrate around the school day.

“Can we have a friends feed at noon?” Mr. Jones asked Mr. Vatere. “It would be great to do ‘Your friends have updated.’ ”

“And you talk about it while you’re at school,” Mr. Pham added.

Every generation has its thing, and the last two have been marked by digital technology. One of the big dividing lines between Generation X and millennials was that millennials grew up with the Internet. A big difference between millennials and the next group — the postmillennials — has been smartphones.

Economic and cultural changes have an even larger influence, argues Neil Howe, an author and historian who is credited with coining the term “millennial generation.” The Great Recession and its aftermath are likely to make the postmillennial generation more risk-averse, he said. At the same time, today’s kids have absorbed lots of parental advice about online safety and bullying.

“There’s a whole new curriculum being pushed by Gen X parents and one thing it emphasizes above all is emotional intelligence and being very sensitive to the needs of others,” Mr. Howe said.

In surveys, his consulting company, LifeCourse Associates, has found that teenagers are extremely anxious about being criticized on social media and are more conscious than their parents of when an app makes them feel bad — or at least aren’t bashful about saying so.

During the recent focus group at Science, one girl said she showed Instagram ideas to at least three people before posting. Another said she deleted any post that did not garner enough likes. “I post and I just delete, because I don’t want to have, like, never mind,” she said, too ashamed to announce the precise number of likes out loud.

Wishbone sees those anxieties as an opportunity. The app doesn’t ask users to take pictures in which they look “sooo beautiful!!!!,” nor does it require having parents who vacation in Instagram-perfect locales. Users just make funny polls to talk about celebrities, makeup and bands. It is about your tastes, not your identity.

 

Rajada Victor, a 14-year-old ninth grader who lives in Los Angeles, was seated near the girl who was ashamed of her paltry likes. In a follow-up interview, she said she had grown exhausted by the frenzy for online status but was a regular on Wishbone, which she checks all the time: in class, while walking to school, on weekends.

“I like the fact that you don’t have to look a certain type of way to post,” she said. “People don’t comment rudely or anything — you’re just comparing stuff.”

Mr. Vatere can see this in the data: Wishbone users frequently describe themselves by their interests — they might like Taylor Swift, for instance — but rarely post personal photos. The app also employs an “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy by having Ms. Kocar and her editorial team choose many different polls, not just the most popular ones, for the coveted Daily Dozen of posts that all Wishbone users vote on.

“You want to create an environment where it doesn’t feel like only 1 percent of the people win,” said Eric Kuhn, Science’s head of product. “And we’ve heard that with other platforms, like as soon as you’re clearly not in that top 1 percent, you don’t want to use the app anymore.”

Some Facts and a Hunch

 

Michael Jones, chief executive of Science Inc. Science owns Wishbone, a social networking app centered on polls. “If you thought that the immediate gratification generation was two generations ago, you haven’t even seen what immediate gratification looks like until you start spending time with, like, a teen on a phone.”
He spent the next two decades tracking the migration of media to the web, to social platforms to mobile phones. Elixir became a website and, as Mr. Jones got more interested in the web than publishing, he started a software company called Userplane that was bought by AOL.

Later Mr. Jones was the chief executive of MySpace, where his job was to try to blunt the ascendance of a new competitor called Facebook. This did not go well.

He founded Science four years ago with Mr. Pham. He calls it a “start-up studio” that helps entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses. Wishbone is part of Science’s mobile group — which includes several other apps — but Mr. Jones is so enamored with social media that he decided to run the group and Wishbone himself. The Science offices are just a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica and have requisite start-up touches like exposed ceilings, copious whiteboards and employees who toil quietly while wearing Beats headphones.

Science has raised about $40 million in venture capital, most of it from Hearst Ventures. After the MySpace debacle, Mr. Jones said he initially steered clear of social media and focused on building online commerce businesses such as Dollar Shave Club, a razor subscription service, and DogVacay, a dog-boarding version of Airbnb, the online home-rental service.

“Coming out of MySpace I was like, ahhh, this is so hard — social ads is tough,” he said. “Let’s just take a pause.”

As social media moved to mobile phones, Mr. Jones figured there would be a chance to get back in. Wishbone came out of a few facts and a hunch. The facts are that people spend several hours a day on their phones, and that teenagers favor apps in which everyone gets to create content and be part of the show.

 

The hunch was that a polling app would do well. Mr. Jones knew from his AOL days that polling was among the most addictive of online features. And since successful mobile apps reward repetitive behavior, he figured polling would translate well to smartphones.

If Wishbone were almost anything besides an app, three million users would be a huge success. But apps are a brutal business, where a few gigantic hits like Facebook and YouTube make most of the money. American smartphone owners use about 27 apps per month, but spend about 80 percent of their time in five, according to a recent study by Activate, a consulting firm.

And even the winners can’t rest for long. Facebook, the biggest social network, has tried to defend its top position by buying or trying to buy rival apps as they break through. Facebook tried to buy Snapchat, but was spurned.

Four years ago the company spent $1 billion to buy Instagram, which at the time had a dozen employees and about 30 million monthly users. Today Instagram has more than 400 million, about a quarter of Facebook’s users.

Wishbone is a long way from that top tier, which is why employees show up to meetings with laptops full of statistics about what teenagers are doing. And it is why they spend time running focus groups.

Right around Thanksgiving, Mr. Jones, Mr. Pham and Mr. Vatere started rethinking their strategy for sending out push notifications. All through the summer and fall they had been limiting the number of daily alerts on the assumption that, like them, Wishbone users would be annoyed if they were interrupted by too many pings and dings. And, as one might expect when three fathers make an assumption about teenage girls, they could not have been more wrong.

“We talked to them and they’d be like, ‘Why am I not getting notified when people vote on my stuff?’ ” Mr. Jones said. “And we’d be like, ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to do that ’cause we might send you, like, 50 notifications that you got 50 of your friends to vote on your card.’ They’re like, ‘But that’s what I want.’ ”

“In fact,” Mr. Jones said, “they would even kind of subtly infer that if they didn’t get at least 50, it was kind of like a bad day.”

The same way Gen X measured its worth in answering machine messages, the mobile-minded teenager sees each like and mention as reassurance of an active social life. And when your phone is the default security blanket for enduring the awkwardness of walking a high school hallway, it feels nice to have a bunch of digital hellos ready with a swipe.

So just before Thanksgiving weekend, Wishbone opened the fire hose, sending out notifications for everything — every vote, every mention, everything that has to do with a user on the app. A week later they found several key metrics, like voting, had almost doubled.

One might ask if teenagers need another distraction. In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research group, half of teenagers said they watched TV while doing their homework, while 60 percent said they texted and three-quarters said they listened to music.

Those in the Wishbone focus group said they loved getting notifications but acknowledged getting lost in their phones. One girl said that it had come to the point that the only way she could finish her homework was to put her phone in another room.

“Sometimes it’s fun ’cause it’s like people are thinking about you and are like, ‘I want to show this to Jada,’ ” said Rajada Victor, the ninth grader in Los Angeles, who goes by Jada. But, she also said, she tries not to become caught up in worrying about social media.

“I’m focusing on my grades and all that stuff,” she said.

And that’s the thing about teenagers: They grow up.