Americans Slept Better In 1968 Even With A War Going On

Fifty-one years ago the nightly news was full of gory, gut-wrenching images from Vietnam.

Nevertheless, the prospect of fighting that war or fleeing didn’t keep people up at night the way smartphones do today.

The smartphone is apparently worse for sleep than a war.

The effect of screens on sleep

Adults often read and tell bedtime stories to children. They know reading to a child helps him or her succeed in both school and life. Sweet stories are soothing. A bedtime routine sets the child up for success. 

Parents and grandparents have been doing this for years. 

A lot of study and thought goes into how to get children to go to sleep. An internet search reveals many more results showing the effects of before-bed activities for children and teenagers than adults.

While reading is good, when it comes to affecting sleep, what’s read may not matter as whether a smartphone is used before bed. 

One 2013 study from New Zealand showed the longer a child interacted with some kind of a screen, the later he or she went to bed. The later the child went to bed, the less sleep they got. The less sleep they get, the more their physical and intellectual development is affected, other studies demonstrate.

We think less about adults, however. They make their own choices, we believe.

They’re choosing to be sleep deprived.

Most adults are sleep deprived, according to a 2018 study commissioned by Princess Cruise Lines. Many adults don’t impose the same kind of discipline on themselves that they do on their children.  

They often send themselves to bed with the news, argumentative commentary, and violent TV shows. 

They’re not doing what they tell kids to do. They’re not thinking happy thoughts and they’re messing with smartphones.  

Much research on adults on this topic is 40-50 years old. 

A study from 1968 found studying, exercise or relaxation didn’t affect the time of sleep onset in a group of 15 young men studied on three consecutive nights. The psychologist who led that study, Peter Hauri, was later considered an expert in insomnia. He is best known for his 1990 book “No More Sleepless Nights.” It was widely cited for its advice on how to fall asleep without sleeping medication. Further, he’s believed to have coined the term “sleep hygiene.”

If he could have, what would have happened if Hauri had given the young men some smartphones?

We’ll never know.

As a society, we sort of woke up suddenly in the middle of a public health crisis a few years ago. With that kind of result from that kind of study in the 1960s, no wonder people were taken by surprise on this modern epidemic. Insomnia was viewed more as a problem confined to certain people in certain situations. 

The year 1968 wasn’t a blissful time when everybody’s life was smooth sailing. There was the Vietnam War, a contentious presidential election, and race rioting, for starters. That year was full of conflict and worry. Hauri’s test subjects were of the age to be affected by the military draft. They would have seen young men just like them getting shot up on TV on the nightly news. There were plenty of troubling thoughts on their minds.

They still slept better than us.

While our military conflicts today involve fewer people and there is no draft, the main difference is that we have all kinds of distractions and screens. 

Much of our lives revolve around screens. Our nighttime rituals are a continuation of what we do all day. At night, we need self-discipline, better habits. Adults should send themselves with the same advice they tell young children. Think happy thoughts. Read uplifting stories. The Chicken Soup for the Soul series is a great source of positivity. 

And all of those positive thoughts are fine, but maybe the even more important thing is we go back to living as we did in 1968 in the hours before bed.

The Vietnam War was the first war extensively covered on television. Walter Cronkite made his career as a war correspondent. Thinking about the same troubling thing over and over again could keep someone up at night. They found that affected sleep quality in a 2014 study too.  Though in a 2015 study in Hong Kong showed that worries had a way of evening themselves out during the night.

Still, it’s apparent that channeling 1968 technology-wise in the hours before bed solves many sleep problems. It’s a good start. 

Other Resources:

Calvin Kai-Ching Yu. “The Vicissitudes of Affective Valence Across the Night: A High-Density Electroencephalographic Study.” Dreaming 25, no. 4 (December 2015): 274–90. doi:10.1037/a0039593. 

Foley, L. S., Maddison, R., Yannan Jiang, Marsh, S., Olds, T., & Ridley, K. (2013). Presleep Activities and Time of Sleep Onset in Children. Pediatrics131(2), 276–282. 

Hauri, P. (1968). Effects of Evening Activity on Early Night Sleep. Psychophysiology4(3), 267–277. 

Keisuke Takano, Shinji Sakamoto, & Yoshihiko Tanno. (2014). Repetitive Thought Impairs Sleep Quality: An Experience Sampling Study. Behavior Therapy45(1), 67–82. 

Updated March 10, 2021

Further reading in the Dream Recovery System

Listening to old AM radio broadcasts is a relaxing way to fall asleep

The hidden power of distraction

How to confront nightmares and terror

What to do when you’re too troubled to sleep

When to trust your intuition

What you need to know about the American dream and dream journaling


James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life. 


The DRS includes affiliate links for which we receive a small commission if something is purchased through the link. 

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