There’s not much unique about Penelope Disick’s TikTok.
Under the username @PAndKourt, the 9-year-old daughter of Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick posts videos of how she makes a frozen yogurt from LA staple Menchie’s and her skincare routine (using items from her aunt Kylie’s line). She enlists her parents to lip-synch and dance and picks up her fluffy dog and shakes its butt at the camera as a chipmunk version of “Baby Got Back” plays in the background. Like many kids right now, she seems eager for social media fame, asking for more followers in her bio.
Of course, Penelope is not a normal kid on TikTok. Since November, when her account was made public, she has amassed about 2.5 million followers. Her cameos feature Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker. And every time she posts a video, her comment sections fill up with praises. Penelope is a “mega aesthetic,” gushes one follower; a “transition queen,” says another. “Oh to be the hair blowing in the wind on Penelope’s sock,” someone wrote on a video of the girl’s socked feet sticking out the window of a moving car.
Penelope and North have been featured on the Instagram accounts of their family members since they were born.
Penelope’s not the only Kardashian kid to step into the social media spotlight. In late November, her cousin North West, 8, launched her own page @KimAndNorth, featuring a similar elementary school aesthetic and soon gaining 2 million followers. North takes a lot of videos of Christmas decorations and films herself dancing. Her mom, Kim Kardashian West, makes many cameos, as does music by her dad, Kanye West.
If the Kardashians are the original social media influencers, then their children are some of the first influencer kids to come of age. Penelope and North have been featured on the Instagram accounts of their family members since they were born, and followers have had nearly unfettered access to their childhoods. It’s a type of celebrity that didn’t exist before a few years ago, and we still really don’t know how it will affect these children as adults.
Now the girls are stepping onto the stage seemingly on their own terms, controlling their online personas for the first time. (Penelope’s older brother Mason was the first to get public social media, but his parents kicked him off after he spilled family gossip and got into a feud with Jeffree Star.) A lot of it is sweet and wholesome. Penelope truly seems like any other kid trying out TikTok (technically, you must be 13 to join, but the rules are rarely enforced), and her videos feel like they really have been shot from the perspective of your average 9-year-old. North throws herself into her dances with a glee and vigor that you can really only truly embody if you are 8 and feeling yourself.
It would be pretty pure, except for well, us. By us, I mean the media, and the adults who are choosing to commodify the girls’ TikToks instead of just letting them live. Because when they post something, it turns into clickbait. News websites manufactured a scandal about Penelope after she posted a video of herself making s’mores. (“Kourtney Kardashian Criticized for Allowing 9-Year-Old Penelope To Wear Fake Nails,” reads one article.) North’s comments have filled up with people jokingly begging her to post her mom’s credit card information, which also made the news.
Brands have also begun to use the accounts to try and increase their own engagement by commenting, as they do on many big social media pages. When Penelope posted a video of her enormous house full of what seems to be an excess of Christmas trees, @partycity wrote, “Who is decorating? (eyes emoji) … Respectfully.” North posted a video of what appears to be a giant fish tank, and @splendasweetners commented, “This room looks pretty sweet.”
This commodification of North and Penelope’s TikToks throws a new wrinkle into the uncomfortable questions looming over the role of children in the social media industry. After spending years on reality TV and on their parents’ Instagrams, these kids are establishing their own online identities.
Penelope and North’s TikTok accounts are so interesting because they represent a glimpse into the larger question of what it means to be social media famous as a child. For many years, many analysts and journalists, myself included, have predicted that we are about five to ten years away from the first generation of children of influencers, particularly mommy bloggers, growing up and telling us all how they felt about their lives being documented on the internet for thousands or millions of strangers.
As I wrote in 2020, there is nothing preventing parents from posting images of their own children on their social media platforms or profiting off said images, and there are no protections enshrined in law that ensure kids get a cut of the money or are protected from exploitation. That means a child can perform for profit from their birth until they can object, and they don’t have to be compensated for their time or their loss of privacy.
In many ways, they are similar to child actors, but without any of the protections enshrined in the California Child Actor's Bill, or Coogan Law, that ensure they can’t be exploited and are paid for their work. Social media platforms also don’t offer any protections for the kids, only requiring users to be of a minimum age, which is easily skirted by adding a disclaimer, like the ones on both North and Penelope’s pages, that the account is “run by the parent”. While some other countries, like France, are moving to enact protections for children online, the US has yet to do so.
Since their parents are famous, both North and Penelope have inherent social media capital. Anyone with some level of fame, from athletes to actors to reality stars and authors, can cash in on the social media marketing machine now by signing up for Instagram, watching the followers roll in, and then negotiating brand deals based on follower count and engagement, which is much easier to attain when you’re already well-known.
For children of famous adults in particular, becoming social media famous is a lay-up. People who have been following the kids of celebrities since they were spotted in paparazzi pics on the pages of Us Weekly are now choosing to cash in on that notoriety on the internet. Ava Phillippe, daughter of Reese Witherspoon, has nearly 1 million followers on Instagram and recently posted what appears to be an ad for Beyoncé’s Ivy Park line. Brooklyn Beckham has more than 12 million followers, an Instagram-famous fiancé, and modeling contracts he shows off on his page — all things he gained at least in part because of his famous last name.
Of course, nepotism in Hollywood is nothing new, and it’s not surprising that famous people’s kids are also now famous, on social media or otherwise. I’m sure in the future an Instagram-famous baby will be able to turn into an Instagram-famous teen and then make a career as an Instagram-famous adult, if it’s their prerogative.
But there’s something a little unsettling about how quickly Penelope and North’s pages are getting sucked into the Kardashian industrial complex. Unless you agree with the conspiracy theories that this is all part of Kris Jenner’s master plan to distract from the Astroworld tragedy, it doesn’t seem like these accounts were created to be monetized. Instead, they feel very genuine. It seems clear to me that Penelope and North are just trying to be like every other kid, posting on a popular app, making funny videos, and trying to flex their creative muscles.
It’s kind of hard to do that, though, when your comments are filled with brands trying out the latest “how are you doing fellow kids” lingo and random adults are calling you “bestie” and asking for your mom to CashApp them.
It’s unclear what this will mean for North and Penelope in the future. Will they embrace their huge online followings and turn to influencing and brand partnership deals? Or will they realize eventually that they are being consumed by millions and cut off the supply?
Perhaps one indication of their future feelings could be those of their aunts, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, who also grew up in the spotlight (Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered when the sisters were 12 and 10, respectively).
After growing up on television, both sisters have expressed reticence about how much people know about their lives. Kendall has said she keeps things private on purpose, and Kylie has straight-up said she doesn’t really want to be famous at all.
“I've been famous for what feels like my whole life. I just want to know what it feels like not to be,” she told Complex in 2016.
Despite this, both women continue to contribute to the Kardashian family fame machine. It remains to be seen if North and Penelope will be the next to pick up the mantle.●