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Imagine being stranded on a desert island with a roof over your head and sufficient provisions—but no human contact other than what you can get from your smartphone. Would you get depressed? Or would your networked device provide enough connection to stave off dark thoughts?

This metaphor applies to a great many Americans. Their basic material needs are covered, and 85% have internet access. Yet at least 26% say that they feel deeply lonely. Psychologists know this from population surveys, not because people talk about it. The distress of feeling rejected or neglected by friends or family is a key predictor of depression, chronic illness and premature death. It’s also a public-health time bomb. The rate of loneliness has increased from about 14% in the 1970s to over 40% among middle-aged and older adults today, and the aging of America’s population is likely to make things worse in the years ahead.

Few public health initiatives aim at combating loneliness, despite the fact that it’s riskier to health and survival than cigarette smoking or obesity. It’s also a taboo topic. Doctors don’t often ask about it, and we might not fess up, even if they did. There’s a fine line between loneliness and exclusion, and who wants to admit to that?

Many of us expect our smartphones and tablets to be the perfect antidote to social malaise. But do virtual experiences provide that visceral sense of belonging so important to being human?