Do you know what the first smartphones looked like? I remember my little golden Samsung. The confusion when I first got it! What are applications? Why do I need them? How do I use them? I had used the internet on my phone before and it was just as slow and useless, but on a larger screen. At least initially. 

Nowadays, that little phone would not even qualify as a smartphone, just a touch screen. Those primitive and slow apps have developed into captivating, interactive and social experiences that draw us in for hours on end. The median screen time has skyrocketed to more than 4 hours per day on average as more and more app developers appear. 

In 2021, there were approximately 6.3 billion smartphone users worldwide. The pandemic has influenced our digital behaviours too, with downloads of apps up 30% on average since 2019. Some of those apps can change the course of public debates and, as we learnt, even democratic elections.

An app is simply a tool, neither good nor bad on its own, but simply a reflection of its user. With numbers of downloads growing exponentially, it is important to understand both the risks and benefits of our new, digital realities.

Keeping that in mind, here are five of the most common myths about apps that we have encountered during MIL training with High School students.

  1. Myth

    Some apps are free because their developers want to give something back to the world. 


    Apps track our data and create a digital avatar that tries to mimic, predict and influence our habits and likes. This data is then sold to advertisers who can better facilitate personalised algorithmic content, both paid and unpaid, in order to keep us engaging on the interface for longer.


  2. Myth

    If I state I do not allow the use of any content from my profile in my Instagram or Facebook bio, then app developers, as well as the network who can see the posts, both have to comply.


    You have accepted the terms and conditions for most apps once you download them. No statement of intent in the bio can override a private company’s rights to data that you share with them. There have been some court cases where information sent in private messages, and later published, can be considered a breach of privacy, but anything posted publicly is there forever.


  3. Myth

    I can outsmart any algorithm by choosing what I engage with more consciously, for example by liking posts I want to see more of. 


    What we post next can be predicted with 95% accuracy, using machine learning, based on our network alone. That means just analysing our friends’ profiles and social ties, without even taking our individual profile and posting history into account. We are way less original or unique than we would like to believe.

  4. Myth

    My right to freedom of speech overrides any terms and conditions by the app developer. They cannot censor anyone.


    Even though some apps like Facebook, Google, TikTok, etc. have become embedded in our digital rights, the right to social media (unlike the internet) is not considered a universal human right. As a private company, they can restrict their users’ experience how they see fit. Each of them have their own rules and procedures, but the power to dictate the platform’s etiquette and rules is in their hands.

  5. Myth

    GDPR protects my data and, if a breach of data should happen on Facebook, for example, they will have to compensate me. 


    When the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower revealed that the company had harvested more than 87 million Facebook users’ data via Facebook test applications, the scandal ended up in a record fine of 5 billion dollars for Facebook. The users whose data was harvested without their consent saw none of that; instead, since Facebook users weren’t financially armed, the fine will go straight to the US treasury.

Apps are full of hidden trackers, as well as designed to make us feel good and addicted. Understanding Privacy Policies and Terms and Conditions require previous knowledge and skills, which is why one should always help children and teens make safe choices and avoid predatory apps. Are you interested in learning more about popular apps? Check out this resource on how to curb kids’ in-app purchases on iPhones, or this guide on dangerous apps all parents should be aware of and this general guide on popular apps.


Photo of Maia Klaassen
Maia Klaassen

Maia works as a Development Specialist at the University of Tartu and the main focus of her job, as well as her research, is in the field of information disorders. As research suggests, it is not possible to fight against the destabilising effects of the phenomena without involving media and information literacy. Taking this into account, Maia balances her research with Media and Information Literacy (MIL) projects, both as a project lead and a youth trainer. Her main focus for the coming years will be to find and highlight best-practice MIL training that could be taken from the formal and informal education system, which tend to cater to the young, but also to the whole population. She is currently coordinating the Baltic MIL network, in order to create a multinational hub to fight disinformation. She also heads the Estonian Digital Research Centre, which looks after the interactive information manipulation risk matrix at

Picture of Maria Murumaa-Mengel
Maria Murumaa-Mengel, PhD

Maria Murumaa-Mengel (PhD in Media and Communication) is currently working as an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, and as a member of the Baltic Engagement Centre for Combating Information Disorders. She is involved in research primarily focusing on young people’s use (and non-use, ‘going off the grid’) of social media, different literacies (e.g. digital, MIL, social media, porn), and various online risks (e.g. gendered online hate, online shaming, online child sexual abuse and grooming). Maria Murumaa-Mengel’s main strengths lie in teaching and supervising – she is the recipient of the 2020 Estonian National Award for the Teacher of the Year and has supervised several award-winning theses. In regard to digital media literacies, she is a firm believer in the ‘know thyself’ ground rule – it all starts with knowing how we as people process information in the increasingly mediatised and datafied world.