Fistfights among kids have become less common over the last decade in 19 of 30 countries surveyed in a new report.
"It was not something that we anticipated," said William Pickett, the lead author of the study in the journal Pediatrics and a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. "If anything, given what you hear in the news, I would have anticipated the reverse."
But fighting in other countries, including the U.S. and Canada, has remained steady, while in a few nations, including the economically decimated Greece, fighting has increased.
Pickett said his study can't explain the overall trend toward less physical conflict.
"As society has evolved, there's probably less tolerance of fighting in school systems and probably (more prevention) efforts across these countries," Pickett speculated.
Fighting among children is an important public health problem, he said.
Not only does it increase kids' chances of getting hurt, but it's also tied up in other dangerous behaviors, such as drinking and using drugs.
To gauge how big the problem is internationally, Pickett and his colleagues surveyed nearly a half million school children in 30 countries, most of them in Europe.
The kids were between 11 and 15 years old.
In 2002, 154,000 kids responded to the questionnaire about how often they fight. Another 166,000 responded in 2006, and 174,000 children participated in 2010.
Taken together, nearly 14 percent of the kids reported that they got into a fight at least three times in the past 12 months in 2002. In 2006, that number dropped closer to 13 percent, and in 2010 11.6 percent of kids said they'd been in a fight at least three times that year.
"We saw this as very positive news," Pickett told Reuters Health.
Fighting in the United States ranged from nearly 12 percent of kids to close to 10 percent, depending on the year, but there was no obvious decline.
"It's reassuring that the rates aren't going up," said Dr. Rashmi Shetgiri, a pediatrician and violence prevention researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who was not involved in the study.
But "it makes me wonder, have we sort of reached a plateau in terms of the interventions that we're using, and do we need to develop some different types of interventions or use them in a different way to really make those rates start going down again," she told Reuters Health.
Shetgiri said programs to curb bullying and improve social skills have been successful in reducing fighting, but perhaps tailoring them to specific racial and ethnic groups could have an even bigger impact.
Link to economic instability?
Pickett pointed out that the U.S., Canada and several other countries did show modest improvements in fighting rates, but the differences were so small that they could have been due to chance.
Larger numbers of children in Greece, Latvia and the Ukraine reported fighting during each subsequent survey.
The authors point out in their study that these countries experienced considerable economic instability during this time period.
In addition, they found that kids from low income countries were more likely to fight than kids from wealthier nations.
"If economic instability is the problem, we should monitor this because of what's going on in the world these days," Pickett said.