NEW YORK: Young people may be up to speed on the latest digital developments but they show an alarming inability to critically process the information they find on the internet or social media, an academic study has revealed.

In Evaluating Information: the cornerstone of civic online reasoning, the History Education Group at Stanford University analysed 7,804 responses from students attending middle school, high school and college and was decidedly downbeat about its findings.

"Overall, young people's ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak."

Most were capable of identifying traditional banner ads, but 82% of middle schoolers were unable to distinguish between a news article and native advertising identified by the words "sponsored content".

Some even remarked on the fact that it was sponsored content but continued to believe it was a news article – which the study suggested meant many had no idea what "sponsored content" meant, adding that "this is something that must be explicitly taught as early as elementary school".

When high school students were invited to assess the trustworthiness of a picture posted on a photo-sharing site, four in ten immediately accepted the premise of the poster, with only 20% questioning the source of the post or the photo.

And when looking at four different tweets on the same subject, more than half trusted an individual on the basis that she provided more (judgemental) information rather than the shorter (non-opinionated) tweet from a respected news source.

Nor did college students show a great ability to evaluate information in tweets, especially those from a politically motivated source. More than half made their assessment without actually clicking on the link provided within the tweet.

"In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students' lack of preparation," the study said. "We worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish".

The Wall Street Journal observed that more schools need to teach media literacy and added that parents also have an important role to play.

Data sourced from Stanford University, Wall Street Journal; additional content by Warc staff