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When Iowa Valley Junior-Senior High School principal Janet Behrens observed her students in the cafeteria, she was dismayed to see that they spent more time looking down at their phones than they did looking at and interacting with each other. So last year, she implemented a new policy that's having a big impact.

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Loneliness is becoming a public health issue.

We live in a time when we're more connected than ever, and yet a recent survey found that most Americans could be classified as lonely — feeling out of step with the world, not creating meaningful relationships, and seeing themselves as disconnected, even when they're with others. That same survey showed that young Americans may be the most lonely demographic. And that's a problem.

Social isolation comes with health concerns, both physical and mental. According to a 2010 study, loneliness could be just as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it can be a factor in the development of depression, and it can hasten cognitive decline due to a lack of intellectual stimulation.

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For kids who are shy or don't quite "fit in," school recess can be a lonely experience.

Many of us have been there, standing alone on the playground, wanting to join in the fun and games but not sure how. During one of the few times in the school day where kids are free to socialize at will, not having friends can be painful.

Sammie Vance sitting on one of the 'buddy benches' she had made for her school. Photo via Heidi Vance.

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